When one concedes that all religions are equal, then the concept of conversion becomes redundant. Conversion represents a retreat in the course of man’s spiritual progress.
If I had the power and could legislate, I should stop all proselytizing.
Religious conversion in a multireligious country like India is a hot button topic; a burning controversy that ignites polemic debate, unleashes passionate protests and provokes vitriolic accusations and counter accusations. The passage by the Karnataka Legislative Assembly of the Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 on 23 December has once again brought this contentious issue to the forefront and raises a host of pertinent questions.
First, is the right to convert a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution and if so, does this Bill violate the Constitution?
Second, is religious conversion in line with our civilisational morality?
Before we pass judgement on anti-conversion legislation that is now in existence in 8 other States, we need to understand its historical background, test its constitutional validity and analyze its moral legitimacy.
India has a long history of anti-conversion laws that predate the rise of the BJP. In pre-independent India several princely states had laws restricting religious conversions “in an attempt to preserve religious identity in the face of British missionaries”. Such laws were existent in the princely states of Kota, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Raigarh, Patna, Surguja, Udaipur and Kalahandi.
After Independence, in the early 1950s, the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh tasked the Niyogi Committee headed by Bhawani Shankar Niyogi, a retired Chief Justice of the Nagpur High Court to investigate Christian missionary activity in MP.
The Niyogi Committee report published in 1956 prompted the enactment of anti-conversion bills in several states; its key findings are summarised below (verbatim):
- Enormous sums of foreign money flow into the country for Missionary work, comprising educational, medical and evangelist activities. It was out of such funds received from abroad that in Surguja the Lutherans and other proselytizing agencies were able to secure nearly 4,000 converts.
- Conversions are mostly brought about by undue influence, misrepresentation, etc., or in other words not by conviction but by various inducements offered for proselytization in various forms.
- A vile propaganda against the religion of the majority community is being systematically and deliberately carried on…
- Schools, hospitals and orphanages are used as a means to facilitate proselytization.
- Tribals and Harijans are the special targets of aggressive evangelization for the reason that there is no adequate provision of hospitals, schools, orphanages and other social welfare services in the scheduled or specified areas.
Based on this information the Committee recommended that “Suitable control on conversions brought about through illegal means should be imposed. If necessary Legislative measures should be enacted.”
Currently anti-conversion laws are in force in eight out of 29 states: Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand; several of these were introduced by non-BJP governments including the Congress Party.
Article 25 states: “Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”
However, the right to propagate is not co-terminus with the right to convert as made amply clear by the Supreme Court.
In the case of Rev. Stanislaus vs State of Madhya Pradesh (17 January 1977) a Supreme Court Bench unequivocally ruled: “It has to be appreciated that the freedom of religion enshrined in the Article (25) is not guaranteed in respect of one religion only, but covers all religions alike, and it can be properly enjoyed by a person if he exercises his right in a manner commensurate with the like freedom of persons following the other religions. What is freedom for one, is freedom for the other, in equal measure, and there can therefore be no such thing as a fundamental right to convert any person to one’s own religion.”
Additionally, the apex court invoked the “public order” caveat and the fact that these Acts were directed specifically against “forcible conversion” to uphold the validity of both the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam, 1968, and the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act,1967 (two of the first anti-conversion Bills).
In short, the Constitution does not guarantee a fundamental right to convert and anti-conversion bills in general have been scrutinised and validated by the Supreme Court.
Indians (or Hindus in particular) have no argument with the intellectual freedom of individuals when it comes to religion or with other religions. Gautam Buddha turned away from Hinduism to propound his own teachings, yet is revered in every Hindu home in India; routine visitation to gurdwaras is a common practice among Hindus, and Christmas is universally celebrated in India.
Their grouse is with the tactics adopted by some that have turned religion from being a process of moral advancement into a political game of numbers.
Conversion has always been anathema to the Hindu mind, because unlike other religions, Hinduism has never claimed an exclusive right to divinity. The ability to realise that there could be more than one way to God has pervaded Hindu scripture for centuries. Truth is one; the wise call it by different names, is an old quote from the Vedas.
Mahatma Gandhi writing in Young India (19 January 1928) said: “I came to the conclusion long ago, after prayerful search and study and discussion with as many people as I could meet, that all religions are true, and also that all had some error in them, and whilst I hold my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism…”
In another message he concludes, “It was impossible for me to believe that I could go to heaven or attain salvation only by (converting to another religion)…”
When one concedes that all religions are equal, then the concept of conversion becomes redundant. Conversion represents a retreat in the course of man’s spiritual progress. Swami Vivekananda, addressing the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 asserted: “Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid. The seed is put in the ground and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth or the air or the water? No. It becomes a plant, it develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth, and the water, converts them into plant substance and grows into a plant. Similar is the case with religion. The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the other and grow according to his own law of growth.”
Gandhi’s views on conversion were equally blunt and direct. Without mincing words, he wrote, “I disbelieve in the conversion of one person by another. My effort should never be to undermine another’s faith but to make him a better follower of his own faith. This implies the belief in the truth of all religions and respect for them. He was even against propagation of religion: “But no propaganda can be allowed which reviles other religions. For that would be negation of toleration. The best way of dealing with such propaganda is to publicly condemn it.”
After all, the Mahatma unequivocally declared: “If I had the power and could legislate, I should stop all proselytizing” (Harijan: 5 November 1935).