From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Articles 25, 26
Mains level : Religious conversions isses
Amid opposition, the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, was introduced in the Assembly.
What is the Bill about?
- The Bill envisages stringent provisions for forced or induced conversions.
- The government wants to prohibit conversion by:
- Fraudulent means
- Coercion and undue influence
Key features of the Bill
(1) Filing of Complaints
- Complaints of conversions can be filed by family members of a person who is getting converted, or any other person who is related to the person who is getting converted, or any person associated with the person getting converted.
(2) Punishment and fines
- The offense of conversion is cognisable and non-bailable and will attract a jail term of three to five years and a fine of ₹25,000 for people found violating the law.
- There is a jail term of three to 10 years, and a fine of ₹50,000 for people converting minors, women and persons from the SC and ST communities.
- The Bill also envisages a compensation of ₹5 lakh to victims of forced conversions.
Do you know?
Odisha was the first State to enact anti-conversion legislation, the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967. Madhya Pradesh enacted the same the following year.
What about willful conversion?
- Prior information: After the law comes into force, any person intending to convert to another religion will have to inform the district magistrate at least thirty days in advance.
- Due inquiry of purpose: The person executing the conversion must also give a notice one month in advance, following which an inquiry will be conducted by the district magistrate through the police to establish the real intent of conversion.
- Defying the conversion: Not informing the district magistrate will lead to the conversion being declared null and void.
Impact of non-conformance
- Not informing authorities will carry a prison term of six months to three years for persons who are converted and one year to five years for the persons carrying out the conversions.
- After getting converted, the person has to again inform the district magistrate within 30 days after conversion and must appear before the district magistrate to confirm his/her identity.
What happens once the Conversion is held valid?
- Post conversion, the district magistrate has to inform revenue authorities, the social welfare, minority, backward classes and other departments of the conversion.
- These authorities will, in turn, take steps with respect to the entitlements of the person in terms of reservations and other benefits.
How many states have enacted the legislation?
- Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand have laws restricting religious conversion.
- Penalties for breaching the laws can range from monetary fines to imprisonment, with punishments ranging from one to three years of imprisonment and fines from ₹5,000 to ₹50,000.
- Some of the laws provide for stiffer penalties if women, children, or members of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) are being converted.
- Some other States, including Manipur, are reportedly “considering similar laws.”
How has Parliament handled anti-conversion bills?
After independence, Parliament introduced a number of anti-conversion bills which were not enacted for want of majority approval.
- In post-Independent India, the first Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill, 1954, which sought to enforce “licensing of missionaries and the registration of conversion.”
- This was followed by the introduction of the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill, 1960, “which aimed at checking conversion of Hindus to ‘non-Indian religions’ .
- Non-India religions included Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism,.
- The Freedom of Religion Bill in 1979, which sought “official curbs on inter-religious conversion.”
Religious conversion: A Constitutionality check
- Indian Constitution aspires toward tolerance of all religions and guaranteed that each person was “equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion” (Article 25).
- This formulation did not come without dispute; the word “propagate” was one of the most contested in the whole of Indian Constitution.
Core issue: Prevalence of Inter-faith Marriage
- India has the Special Marriage Act, 1954, which can be used by inter-faith/inter-community couples to get married.
- The Act, however, requires an advance notice of 30 days to the magistrate before a couple is able to register their marriage.
- When the parties are from different faiths, communities or castes, such a public notice can be, and has been, a great source of danger and harm from their family/community members.
- Consequently, the only option exercised by the inter-faith couples is for one of them to convert to the religion of the other and get married.
Issues with such laws
The anti-conversion laws have been challenged on the ground that innocent persons were being booked under these Acts.
- Patriarchal dominance: It is widely presumed that such conversions involve ‘coercion’ or ‘deceit’, and hence, Hindu women ought to be ‘protected’ from the danger of conversion.
- Targeting minorities: These laws target Muslims and quoted instances of such inter-faith couples having been harassed by militant activists and state government authorities.
- Freedom of Conscience: Women, it is clear, are being treated in a paternalistic way which assumes that they need protection at the cost of their right to make reasoned decisions about changing faith or choosing a friend or life partner.
What about Incentivised Conversions?
- There are many cases of incentivized conversions for the poor sections of society in exchange for a dignified social life.
For them, the solution lies in addressing the root issues:
- Ending discrimination
- Providing high quality and free education to the poor and disenfranchised
- Improving access and quality of free health facilities and medicines
- Improving nourishment and
- Providing adequate employment opportunities to all
- Clearly, anti-conversion laws amount to discrimination and a violation of the right to equality.
- However, inter-faith marriages should not be pre-conditioned with religious conversion. This certainly raises concerns for the majority of society.
- Instead of pursuing this disastrous course, the government could work towards removing impediments to inter-faith marriages and eradicating the social stigma attached to such marriages.
- The couples who wish to enter into an inter-faith alliance are enabled and protected.