The country is facing different socio-political problems due to illegal conversion.


NEW DELHI: Is BJP adopting a new agenda to bring new rules and legislation to control religious conversion by some organisations connected with Christian missionaries or Islamic institutions? Are such activities just crimes or serious suspicious activities of anti-India forces? In fact, for the last four decades, I have been following and writing on this issue. Therefore, I can believe that since independence, governments have been worried about such activities and taking some steps. Government sources used to brief us about the secret activities of some organisations related to Christian missionaries and anti-India forces, including the CIA and ISI. In one of my reports in 1982, I reported that a few Indian representatives, at a conference of the World Council of Churches, pledged to destroy the Hindu religion and also raised the demand for a separate country for Dalits. Afterwards, Khalistani activities became a serious problem for the government. The Home Ministry briefed journalists that foreign spy agencies like the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI were behind all such anti-India elements.
The controversy started with Home Minister K.N. Katju telling Parliament on 15 April 1953 that, while Indians were free to propagate their religion, the new government “did not want people from outside [missionaries] to come and do that”. Katju flatly declared that “if they come here for evangelical work, then the sooner they stop it the better”. Five months later, in September 1953, he announced that Nehru’s government had already expelled three foreign missionaries for “undesirable activities”. When he was questioned, Katju declared that the expelled missionaries had “moved about among the primitive tribes and indulged in various activities which, from the national point of view, were not considered satisfactory”. Congress ministers from five states added to this narrative.
The debate eventually ended with the Union government instituting new curbs on foreign missionaries in 1955. They would henceforth be required to take prior government approval to enter India, and would not be welcome if they devoted themselves only to proselytisation. They would also need to have suitable qualifications in fields like education, medicine and social work.
After the creation of the CIA, Christian missionaries played a very important role in destabilizing various countries and in carrying out espionage activities on behalf of the CIA. The most recent high profile example of the US using religious missionaries as Trojan horses to cause disturbances in India was in the case of the agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. This agitation came after a cable to the CIA from the US Consulate in Mumbai (Wikileaks cable 06MUMBAI1803_a) informed the agency that “we feel that the USG must move forward to enable our companies to compete in the next stage of India’s nuclear future. Otherwise, we may have to watch bitterly as third countries become the first to benefit commercially from the environment that our diplomacy has created.”
The CIA-church connection had been one of the topics of an investigation conducted by the US Senate in 1975. Coincidentally, it came to be known as the Church Committee as it was headed by Senator Frank Church, and according to the report of a committee, the CIA had informed them of at least “a total of 14 covert arrangements which involved direct operational use of 21 individuals” who were American clergy or missionaries. The report went on to state that a few of them “were current in August 1975”.
However, with changing times, agencies’ priorities also changed. But India is facing different socio-political problems due to illegal conversion. For marriage or some financial advantage, people adopt the conversion formula. In view of such a problem, the Modi government and BJP started campaigns for Unified Civil law. To make such a law, they need the approval of the Parliament and assemblies. Certainly, it’s very challenging work and will take time to convince major political parties and different sections of society. Therefore, BJP-ruled states are making new laws to control activities of conversion because it creates a social problem and serious crime. The latest is Uttarakhand and then announcements for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. The Uttarakhand Cabinet cleared a proposal to make the state’s anti-conversion law—Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act—stronger with an amendment to make forced conversion a cognizable offence with a provision of imprisonment, like the law in Uttar Pradesh.
In November 2020, UP Governor Anandiben Patel promulgated the ordinance against “forced” or “fraudulent” religious conversions. The ordinance became an Act in March 2021.
The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, provides for a jail term of up to 10 years for any violation of the law.
The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967, is the first such law in the country and prohibits conversion from one religion to the other by “force or inducement or by fraudulent means”. Violations will result in a jail term of one year or a fine of five thousand rupees or both.
The Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978 (never enforced) says that “no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion”.
Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003; Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) 2006: The law prescribes a punishment of three years for forced conversion, with a fine of up to Rs 50,000. In cases involving a woman, minor, Scheduled Caste (SC)/ Scheduled Tribe (ST), the fine can go up to one lakh rupees. The 2006 amendment sought to make specifications in the “convert” category by stating that “The provisions shall not apply to the inter-denomination conversion of the same religion”. The Buddhist and Jain communities objected to this and the Bill was also withdrawn in 2008. In 2021, the government brought in another amendment to the previous law– a clause on interfaith marriages as a means to carry out the forced conversion, among others. Sections of the law were stayed by the Gujarat High Court, saying “that the burden of proof fell on the parties entering into the inter-faith marriage” that it was not solemnised on “account of any fraud, allurement, or coercion”.
Chhattisgarh Religion Freedom (Amendment) Act, 2006 provides a three-year jail term and penalty up to Rs.20,000 or both. The law makes it mandatory for a person who wants to convert to get approval 30 days in advance from the DM. The DM will have the authority to reject or accept the application after examining the case.
Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2017 mandates imprisonment of three years and a fine of Rs 50,000 or both and a four year imprisonment and Rs 1 lakh fine, or both, if the person converted is a minor, woman or a member of SC or ST. The DM will have to be informed about “time, place and the person who administers the conversion proceedings,” with those converting and those performing conversions having to take permission from the DM. The offences are non-bailable. The Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Ordinance, 2020; Bill passed in 2021 prohibits conversion of religion through “coercion, force, misrepresentation, undue influence, and allurement” as well as fraud, or marriage and prohibits a person from “abetting, and conspiring” to such conversions.
The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2021, prohibits forced religious conversion but also specifies the procedure for undertaking a religious conversion. No person is to force someone to convert through “misrepresentation, coercion, and allurement”. It adds: “marriage done for the sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice-versa to be declared null and void.” However, India needs a common stringent law to check trends of conversion activities of some wasted interest elements in society.
The author is the Editorial Director of ITV Network-India News and Dainik Aaj Samaj.