Religious conversions have been a subject of debate since a very long time and yesterday the issue rocked Parliament in a big way. It was argued by the opposition that forcible conversions had been undertaken in Agra.
However, this argument by the opposition was met with stiff resistance with many claiming that the event was not to convert people. There were Hindus who had been forcibly converted and this was an exercise to bring them back to their original religion voluntarily.
In this write up let us examine the various laws in India pertaining to conversion and also the recommendations made by the law commission on this issue.
The Rev Stanislaus vs Madhya Pradesh case:
This judgment by the Supreme Court passed by a constitutional bench headed by Justice A N Ray probably gives one of the best definitions of Freedom to Religion.
The question before the court was whether the fundamental right to practice and propagate religion includes the right to convert.
The court held in clear terms that while Article 25 does provide freedom of religion, it also went on to state the word propagate religion does not give the right to convert.
The word propagate has been used in Article 25(1) of the Indian Constitution, but that does not give the right to convert another person to one's own religion, but to transmit or spread one's religion by an exposition of its tenets.
The Bench also observed that while propagating religion was allowed, converting does not form part of fundamental rights. What the Article grants is not the right to convert another person to one's own religion, but to transmit or spread one's religion by an exposition of its tenets.
Why do people convert?
There are several reasons that have been listed in various documents mentioning the reasons why people chose to convert. Today it has become a religious battle and there are scores of complaints about missionaries acting like salesmen to sell religion and convert people in large numbers. The trap is often laid with the lure of money and under the garb of doing charity.
The other reasons for conversion which have been seen are polygamy, for reservation benefits and divorce.
In the Sarla Mudgal case the court had held that the religious conversion into Islam by a person from non Islamic faith is not valid if the conversion is done for the purpose of polygamy.
In the Lily Thomas case it was observed that marrying another woman after converting to Islam is punishable under the bigamy laws.
In the Chandra Sekaran case the court had observed that a person does not ceases to be Hindu nearly because he declares that he has no faith in his religion.
A person will not cease to be Hindu even if he does not practice his religion till he does not renounces his religion or starts living and behaving like an atheist or agnostic or starts eating beef or insulting God or Goddesses. He does not ceases to be member of the religion even if he starts expressing his faith in any other religion, he continuous to be a Hindu.
Bills and laws:
The first time that the Parliament took up this matter was in the year 1954. The Bill was called the Indian Conversion(regulation and registration bill). It was taken up again in the year 1960, but was dropped for lack of support and heavy opposition from minorities.
In 1968 Orissa and Madhya Pradesh enacted laws called the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam and the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act respectively. These laws were enacted to prevent conversion from one religious faith to any other by use of force or inducement or by fraudulent means.
Later on several other states like Tamil Nadu and Gujarat enacted similar laws under which forced conversions were made punishable under the Indian Penal Code. The punishment for forcible conversions ranged from a three year jail term and fine of Rs 20000.
Law commission recommendations:
The Law commission of India which was asked to look into the issue of forcible conversions made the following recommendations.
Within a month after the date of conversion, the converted person, if she/he chooses, can send a declaration to the officer in charge of registration of marriages in the concerned area.
The registering official shall exhibit a copy of the declaration on the Notice Board of the office till the date of confirmation.
The said declaration shall contain the requisite details viz., the particulars of the convert such as date of birth, permanent address, and the present place of residence, father's/husband's name, the religion to which the convert originally belonged and the religion to which he or she converted, the date and place of conversion and nature of the process gone through for conversion.
Within 21 days from the date of sending/filing the declaration, the converted individual can appear before the registering officer, establish her/his identity and confirm the contents of the declaration.
The registering officer shall record the factum of declaration and confirmation in a register maintained for this purpose. If any objections are notified, he may simply record them i.e., the name and particulars of objector and the nature of objection.
Certified copies of declaration, confirmation and the extracts from the register shall be furnished to the party who gave the declaration or the authorized legal representative, on request.
The law commission clarified that in states that have a law governing conversion the recommendations would not apply.