Subversion of Religious Freedom & Anti Conversions Laws

By Saif Ahmad Khan,

Over the past one decade, the state governments in India have been categorically working towards institutionalizing Hindutva by means of promulgating anti-conversion laws. The reason why this move can be associated with Hindutva is because it was Vinayak Damaodar Savarkar, Father of Hindutva Fascism, who felt that to change one’s religion was to change one’s nationality. The principle reason behind enacting such communal legislations is to keep a tap on the demographic growth of minorities in India and to ensure the numerical predominance of the Hindu faith. Such legislations have not only been passed in the right wing BJP ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh but have also managed to gain legitimacy in the Congress ruled hill-state of Himachal Pradesh.

Anti-conversion legislations make it mandatory for a person who is planning to convert to inform the government authorities one month in advance regarding the conversion. He also has to mention the name of the priest who would be carrying out the religious acts as also the venue and date of the conversion. If the person fails to do so prior to converting then he would be liable to either imprisonment or a hefty fine or both. What is worse is that the government authorities also have the power to reject applications. However, the most sinister part of the plot can be seen in the anti-conversion legislation passed by the Chhattisgarh Assembly which states, “returning to one’s forefather’s religion or his original religion will not be treated as conversion”. Unlike the latter part of the statement pertaining to ‘original religion’, the former part of the statement isn’t religiously neutral. All persons of Indian origin whether they are Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Parsis have Hindu ancestry. As per this law, all conversions to Hinduism shall not be regarded as conversions since the person already has a Hindu ancestry. What this law has done is that it has made it very easy to convert to Hinduism by not even treating it as a conversion and on the other hand, it has created governmental roadblocks in converting to a faith other than Hinduism.

Such policies of the secular state of India are very much in line with the Islamist regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan where conversions to any other faith besides Islam are prohibited. In fact, the law of apostasy in several countries prescribes death for those who renounce Islam publicly. Conversions have been a controversial subject in India but there appears to be a tacit understanding between India’s right wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and ruling Congress Party regarding this subject. It was the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh in 1955 which appointed the Niyogi Commission to study the activities of Christian Missionaries in India. The report which was formulated held a view similar to that of the Hindu nationalists in regards to missionary activities.

The supporters of anti-conversion legislations argue that such laws are necessary to put an end to forced conversions happening in different parts of India. They accuse missionaries of taking funds from foreign countries to annihilate the indigenous culture of India. The Christian missionaries in India have largely denied such allegations and have labelled attempts of curbing conversions as an assault on religious autonomy. The much cherished freedom of religion is central to the existence of a democratic society. The hypocritical politics of the Congress coupled with the confrontational style of the BJP is a matter of deep concern for India’s secularists whose apolitical activism is the only way to preserve real secularism in the nation.

(The writer is presently a student of journalism at the University of Delhi)