Bogey of ‘Forced’ Conversions

Cedric Prakash Cedric Prakash
21 Nov 2022

India is going through its worst ever phase in its ’75-plus’ years of freedom. On possibly every front, global indicators and surveys show that India has reached a spectacular low -- a new nadir. Neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka fare much better than India on several parameters. The deterioration obviously began in 2014 after the Modi regime came to power. 

The victims are mainly the poor and the downtrodden; the marginalised and the minorities; the excluded and the exploited; the Adivasis and the Dalits; the small farmers and the migrant workers; other subaltern and vulnerable sections of society. The economy is in a shambles. Inflation is on an upward spiral; the cost of fuel and other essential commodities have reached an all-time high. The rich become richer, amassing scandalous proportions of wealth; the poor become more and more impoverished driving many to suicides.

It is also a bad time for human rights in India: in a systematic but brutal manner, the legitimate rights of people are not only denied but are also crushed. To add to it, human rights defenders and others who take a visible and vocal stand against injustice, against a regime which is anti-people, anti-democratic and anti-Constitutional, are at the receiving end of a system which reeks of vendetta. Government institutions like the CBI, the ED, the NIA, the Income Tax Department are systematically used and abused to target the innocent; Constitutional and autonomous institutions like the Election Commission and the National Human Rights Commission become pliable tools in the hands of the regime. There is hounding and harassment, investigations and raids, false cases foisted, incarceration and even murder of those who have the courage to stand up for truth and justice.

On 17 October 2022, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), released its annual Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (GMPI) report ‘Unpacking deprivation bundles to reduce multidimensional poverty’. The report, for the first time, dedicated a special section focusing on the 15-year trend of poverty in India. The revelation is that over the past 15 years, the number of poor people has declined by 415 million. However, India still has the highest number of poor people (almost 229 million) in the world. 

Besides, India hosts the highest number of poor children -- 97 million (21.8% of Indian children). The 2019-21 data revealed that around 16.4 per cent of the Indian population is poor; of these, 4.2 % live in extreme poverty since their deprivation score is above 50%. About 18.7% of the population is vulnerable and could be pushed into extreme poverty. Of these, two-thirds fall into the category where one person is at least deprived of nutrition. In the Human Development Report 2021-22 -- Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a Transforming World -- by the UNDP, India is ranked 132 among 191 countries and territories. India’s ranking in Global Hunger Index 2022, also released in October, is now a pathetic 107 out of 121 countries. 

The painful reality which has gripped millions of Indians is certainly not good news for a nation. So, what is conveniently done is to defocus from the plight of the poor and marginalised: their roti, kapda aur makaan, the growing unemployment, the runaway inflationary trends, the hate and violence which is spreading everywhere, the destruction of the environment, the systematic attacks on the pluralistic and democratic fabric of the country and above all, the total lack of governance and the abdication of responsibilities by those in power. 

What better way to defocus from the grim realities facing the nation than to conveniently and manipulatively change the subject of attention to the ‘minorities of the country’ by denigrating them, showing that they are anti-national, they subscribe to a ‘foreign’ religion, indulge in ‘love jihad’ and so on. With a pliant media, such blatant lies easily get traction.

So, the ‘bogey of conversion’ is centre stage again! On November 14, 2022, the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Justice M.R. Shah and Justice Hima Kohli observed that forced conversions may “ultimately affect the security of nation and freedom of religion and conscience of citizen.” The bench directed the Central Government to inform the Apex Court what steps it intends to take to curb deceitful or compulsory religious conversions. The bench was hearing a PIL by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, who has been filing several petitions of this kind in the past.  Upadhyay wants a law against fraudulent religious conversion by intimidation, threat, luring through gifts and monetary benefits, as it offends Articles 14, 21, and 25.

Significantly, in April 2021, a three-judge bench of Justices Rohinton F Nariman, B.R. Gavai and Hrishikesh Roy had dismissed a similar petition by Upadhyay himself and had even threatened to impose heavy costs if he persisted with the petition. The bench at that time had opined that any religious conversion law would be violative of the Constitution as the Constitution clearly allows joining of any religion of one’s choice and that’s why the word “propagate” is in the Constitution. The bench termed “very harmful” the petition that asked for a strict central law to check religious conversion and observed that adults are free to choose their faith. 

The bench also cautioned senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayan, who represented Upadhyay, in the matter. “What kind of a petition is this? This is a very harmful petition. If you are going to argue this, we are going to impose a heavy cost on you”, said Justice Nariman, adding that “There is a reason why the word ‘propagate’ is there in the Constitution. You have to have some meaning for that word. There is no reason why somebody above 18 cannot choose one’s own religion or somebody else’s religion.” The petition was immediately withdrawn.

This time, however, the Solicitor General of India, Tushar Mehta, was supportive of the petition which clearly shows how desperate the Government is to defocus from the current pathetic state of the nation. Justice Shah told Mehta, “This is such a serious matter and where is your stand by way of counter? Very serious and sincere efforts are to be made”. Shah added, “there may be freedom of religion, but no freedom on forced conversion.” The Bench also wanted to know what action the Government proposes to take to stop forced conversions in the country. What certainly took the cake was a comment by the Bench, “if forced conversion was found to be true it would affect the security of the nation as well as the freedom of citizen.” The matter for further hearing is now scheduled for November 28 and the Centre has been asked to file its response before November 22. 

Strangely enough, the petition also claimed, without any facts, that if forced conversions were not checked, Hindus would soon become a minority in India. There could not be a bigger lie than this. One only has to visit the Census data 2011 to realise that the growth rate of minorities is on the decline. Unfortunately, we live in Goebbelsian times: Tell a lie a thousand times and people will soon accept it as the truth.

Though there are anti-conversion laws in States, there is no hard data to prove any so-called ‘forced’ conversions; nor there is any substantial information on cases filed under these laws and convictions made by courts and upheld by higher courts. The argument then is that if the state laws have not succeeded, what is the guarantee that a central law would put an end to forced conversions. In January 2021, Madhya Pradesh came up with a stringent ordinance; within the first 23 days, as many as 23 cases were filed alleging forced conversions; none of them has resulted in conviction. There has been just one conviction by the lower court out of sixteen cases under the UP law.  

However, there have been several incidents of conversion to Hinduism. In 2014, 57 Muslim families with more than 200 members converted to Hinduism in Agra. In 2021, 300 Muslims in Haryana converted to Hinduism.  Ironically enough, the anti-conversion laws do not seem to apply to them and innocuously referred to as ‘ghar wapsi’ (homecoming).  On October 5, more than 8,000 Dalits left Hinduism and embraced Buddhism in a mass conversion rally in Delhi. A few days later, on October 14, more than 100 Dalit men and women did the same, throwing pictures of Hindu deities into Krishna River to renounce their faith.

The anti-conversion laws basically perpetuate a casteist and patriarchal society because all of them had been enacted on the premise that women, SCs and STs are vulnerable, need protection and cannot take vital decisions in their life on their own. Embracing another religion away from Hinduism is a clear statement that they want to live a more dignified and humane life and there is absolutely no ‘force’ in their voluntary decision.

In keeping with an election promise, Narendra Modi introduced on March 26, 2003, the draconian ‘Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act’. It took full five years for his government to frame the necessary rules for the implementation of the law. In February 2006, at a Shabri Kumbh (a mass gathering of Hindus) programme in the Dangs (supported by the Gujarat Government), Modi warned the Christians, “It is my constitutional duty to prevent conversions.  Our Constitution disapproves of them, and yet some people turn a blind eye.” 

Morari Bapu accused the Christians of bringing in plane-loads of missionaries from the Vatican “who come here to carry out conversion activities but when we organise a ‘ghar wapsi’ why should it be termed as bad?”  Both Modi and Morari Bapu clearly endorsed the ‘ghar wapsi’ programmes which were part of that programme. In 2009, the constitutional validity of this law was challenged in the Gujarat High Court by the Gujarat United Christian Forum for Human Rights and others. A notice was sent by the Court to the Government to respond, but they did not do so. The petitioners later withdrew their petition with an intention of making it stronger.

The point is not whether one has the right ‘to convert another’ but whether a citizen of India has the right to choose a religion of one’s choice. This is guaranteed in Article 25 of the Constitution of India which guarantees the freedom of conscience, the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion to all citizens. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

One needs to ask: If two mature consenting adults would like to marry, what right has the State to stop them from doing so? Then, if a Dalit girl wants to embrace Buddhism, since it is the religion of her husband and will perhaps lead to enhancing the quality of her life, does she have the right to do so? Or for that matter, if a Christian girl wants to freely embrace Islam after marrying a Muslim, does she also have the right to do so? Why should the State (with its brutal mechanism and vigilantes) or anyone else, interfere in matters which are personal and private and clearly violative of Article 21: The right to privacy. On August 24, 2017, the Supreme Court in a historic judgement declared the right to privacy as a fundamental right, protected under the Indian Constitution. In declaring that this right stems from the fundamental right to life and liberty, the Court's decision has far-reaching consequences for every citizen.

Addressing a huge gathering of Mahars in Bombay in May 1936, Dr B. R. Ambedkar openly spoke out his ideas on conversion and why he considered it to be the best and only route towards emancipation saying, “I tell you all very specifically, religion is for man and not man for religion; to get human treatment, convert yourselves. Hindu society does not give equality of treatment, but the same is easily achieved by conversion.” 

Will the Supreme Court take note of this and strike down the ‘bogey’ of forced conversion once and for all and ensure that the Government focuses on more important things?

(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)
 

minorities Human Rights economy Global Hunger Index 2022 forced conversion Article 18 Supreme Court Issue 48 2022 Indian Currents

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