India’s Top Court Voices Concerns over the So-Called ‘Forced Conversion’ Concept

Radical Hindu groups in India consider conversion to Islam and Christianity unacceptable calling them ‘foreign faiths’.

Newsroom (15/11/2022 11:16 AM, Gaudium Press) — The Supreme Court of India has expressed concerns over alleged forceful religious conversion saying it affects the national security, freedom of religion, and conscience of citizens.

The top court made the remarks during a hearing on a petition seeking to curb forced religious conversions across the country and asked the federal government to explain its efforts to curb compulsory or deceitful religious conversions.

“There may be freedom of religion but there may not be freedom of religion by forced conversion,” the division bench of Justice M. R. Shah and Justice Hima Kohli said on Nov. 14.

Delhi-based lawyer Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, a leader of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) moved the Supreme Court in September pleading it to direct the federal and provincial governments to take stringent steps to control fraudulent religious conversions, which he called “a nationwide problem.”

During its hearing on Sept. 23, the top court directed the federal government and the federal ministries of home affairs, and law and justice, among others to file their responses before Nov 14.

 Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, the attorney of the federal government admitted that forced conversions were rampant in areas where indigenous people live predominantly.

Offering rice, wheat, and clothes among other goods could never be a ground for asking a person to change his conscience or bargain on my fundamental right to religion, the attorney said.

“In many cases, the victims would not know he has been the subject matter of a criminal offense… He would say that he was helped,” Mehta noted.

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He further said the word “propagate” had come up for consideration in the Constituent Assembly debates and, “it was decided that the term did not mean forcible conversions,”.

Mehta shed light on a 1997 judgment of the top court in the Rev. Stanislaus Versus State of Madhya Pradesh in which the top court had held that the word “propagate” in Article 25 did 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 “freedom of conscience of every person includes freedom not to be allowed to change his conscience and convert…,” the law officer explained.

The top court had also held there was “no fundamental right to convert another person to one’s own religion.” Freedom of religion is not guaranteed in respect of one religion only but covers all religions alike, he pointed out.

“If a person purposely undertakes the conversion of another person to his religion, as distinguished from his effort to transmit or spread the tenets of his religion, that would impinge on the ‘freedom of conscience guaranteed to all the citizens of the country alike,” observed the 1977 judgment.

Article 25(1) of the Constitution says that “subject to public order, morality and health… all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion. 

The petitioner claimed that incidents of fraudulent conversions were reported every week throughout the country and involved various unlawful means including the use of black magic, superstitions, and miracles, besides threats and allurements. 

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The court directed the federal government to file an affidavit on or before Nov. 22, detailing what actions it proposed to take to curb forced conversions. It said such conversions were reported to be found more in poor and tribal areas. The court posted it for Nov. 28, the next date of the hearing.

“The injury caused to the citizens is extremely large because there is not even one district which is free of religious conversion by ‘hook and crook’,” Upadhyay submitted.

Upadhyay urged the court to issue a direction to the federal government and the Law Commission of India to draft a national law to restrain religious conversion.

He had in the past also approached the Supreme Court with a similar demand but was rebuked by a bench led by Justice Rohinton F. Nariman, who asked why a person above 18 years can’t choose his religion.

The apex court then upheld the inviolability of the right to privacy that is directly related to the life, dignity, and liberty of the person while emphasizing that the choice of religion and marriage will continue to be left to the individual’s choice.

In India, religious conversion to Christianity or Islam is considered unacceptable to many right-wing Hindu groups who consider these are foreign faiths unlike other religions of “indigenous origins.”

In Hindu-majority India, Christians account for 2.3 percent of the 1.3 billion people.

– Raju Hasmukh with files from UCAN News

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