Anti-Conversion laws of various states
Madhya Pradesh has approved a bill to prevent “forceful” religious conversions. The research organisation, the PRS Legislative Research recently released a report comparing various existing anti-conversion laws in several states.
• According to research paper of the US Library of Congress (LOC), laws restricting religious conversions were originally introduced by princely states during the British colonial period — particularly during the latter half of the 1930s and 1940s. These states enacted the laws “in an attempt to preserve their religious identity in the face of British missionaries”.
• Following India’s independence, parliament introduced a number of anti-conversion bills, but none were enacted.
• There is no central anti-conversion law. The states that have enacted anti-conversion laws make religious conversion by force or allurement a punishable offence.
• Over the years, several states enacted “Freedom of Religion” legislation to restrict religious conversions carried out by force, fraud, or inducements.
• “Freedom of Religion laws” are currently in force in eight states — (i) Odisha (1967), (ii) Madhya Pradesh (1968), (iii) Arunachal Pradesh (1978), (iv) Chhattisgarh (2000 and 2006), (v) Gujarat (2003), (vi) Himachal Pradesh (2006 and 2019), (vii) Jharkhand (2017), and (viii) Uttarakhand (2018).
• The laws passed in Himachal Pradesh (2019) and Uttarakhand also declare a marriage to be void if it was solemnised for the sole purpose of conversion, or a conversion was done solely for the purpose of marriage.
• While a common feature of all three laws (MP, HP and UP) is the declaration of such marriages as “null and void” and the penalising of conversions done without the prior approval of the state, they differ in the quantum of punishment prescribed, and in attributing the burden of proof that a conversion is lawful.
• Also, the MP Law seeks to protect the rights of women of such marriages.
• The MP law places on the person converted the burden of proving that the conversion was done without any coercion or illegality. The Himachal law has a similar provision. The UP law goes further, placing this burden of proof on people who “caused” or “facilitated” the conversion and not on the individual.
In 1977, a priest from Raipur named Rev Stanislaus challenged MP’s law in Supreme Court. In the case, court made a clear distinction between the right to propagate one’s religion or faith and the right to convert. The former is guaranteed by Article 25 of the Constitution. Conversion enjoys no such protection.
The court held that conversion isn’t a fundamental right and so could be regulated by the state. Both the Odisha and MP laws were upheld. This provided the legal basis of other laws that followed.
At least 10 states including MP and Himachal Pradesh already have anti-conversion laws. The key difference in the new laws is that they seek to criminalise conversions solely for the purpose of marriage.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reports of 2016 and 2018, observers have noted that there are very few arrests or prosecutions under these laws but they “create a hostile, and on occasion violent, environment for religious minority communities because they do not require any evidence to support accusations of wrong doing”.
More recent reports by USCIRF have highlighted certain incidents of arrests, including an incident in 2017, where religious minority leaders and adherents faced intimidation and arrest as a result of these laws.
An analysis of the legislations reveals that the language used is often extraordinarily broad and vague, posing serious challenges to religious freedom as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution and enshrined in international human rights instruments.
Historically, India has never witnessed persecution purely on religious grounds. Compared with Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, India has had a benign environment in this respect. Religious wars are alien to India. But the country has not been immune from religious violence due to flaring up of passions among different communities.