Herald View: The Bogey of Mass Conversion and the 'Freedom of Religion' Laws

Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Singh Dhami said a stricter anti-conversion law was necessary as the state is the land of gods and practices like 'religious conversion' are detrimental for the state

An RSS Pracharak had carried out a 'Ghar Wapsi' programme for Muslims in Agra in Dec. 2014 wherein scores of Muslims were forced to 'come back' to Hinduism
An RSS Pracharak had carried out a 'Ghar Wapsi' programme for Muslims in Agra in Dec. 2014 wherein scores of Muslims were forced to 'come back' to Hinduism

Herald View

How many bigoted laws does Uttarakhand need? There isn’t a quick or easy answer to that question, but a new legislative abomination lends the question a certain urgency. We are talking about an amendment bill introduced in the Uttarakhand assembly on November 29—and passed a day later—to make the four-year-old anti-conversion Act (which ironically goes by the name Uttarakhand ‘Freedom of Religion’ Act, 2018) even more stringent.

The amendment makes provision to increase the maximum imprisonment for ‘forcible conversion’ from the existing five years to 10 years and to make conversion a cognizable, non-bailable ‘crime’.

Shorn of the legalese, the new provisions also mean that the state police can take cognisance of complaints; they cannot, however, release the accused on bail, which can only be secured from courts.

Nobody seems to have popped the question: why was this amendment necessary? What were the ‘difficulties’ in implementing the existing law or what alarming discovery made it necessary to make the process and punishment more stringent?

We don’t know how many cases were filed under the Act in the past four years, nor have details of the number of chargesheets filed or the number of accused actually convicted. That data, one assumes, will form a part of the ‘objectives’ of the bill, but none has been made available.

As expected, there was no real debate or discussion (on the amendment) in the assembly. But can states and state assemblies be faulted for taking their cues from Parliament? This brings to mind former CJI N.V. Ramana’s lament about the sorry state of affairs resulting in ‘no clarity in the laws’.

When Parliament and state assemblies debate bills, as they earlier did, Ramana recalled, they help the courts understand better the intended objectives of new legislation. Poorly drafted bills, passed without discussion, had also led to a spurt in litigation, Ramana said. Judicial confusion shows up in conflicting interpretations and judgments in different courts.

The population of Uttarakhand is overwhelmingly Hindu—around 82 per cent. Muslims account for less than 14 per cent, and other religions are tiny minorities with populations of 1 per cent or lower. There is nothing to suggest a dramatic change in the state’s demographic profile. Why, then, is Uttarakhand wasting time, energy and resources trying to amend this law?

Unless the point is not to prevent (imagined) ‘mass conversions’ (which under the amendment bill would refer to ‘religion of two or more persons is converted’) but to wave a red flag ahead of elections in Gujarat and signal a zero-tolerance to these imagined conversions. For the ruling BJP, talking up imagined conversions is a handy device to polarise voters whenever it pleases.

Legal experts have repeatedly pointed out the perversity of anti-conversion laws. The Constitution of India provides every Indian citizen the fundamental right to ‘profess, practise and propagate religion’. The right to convert was debated fiercely in the Constituent Assembly, and Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s original draft bore the words: ‘right to profess, to preach and to convert, within limits compatible with public order and morality’. Ambedkar later assented to replacing the word ‘convert’ with ‘propagate’; he presumably believed the two could be used interchangeably in the context.

Technically, Indians still retain the right to convert, but to do so, they have to fill up a form and seek the permission of the State to change their faith.

Anti-conversion laws have a long and chequered history in India, with Odisha and Madhya Pradesh promulgating their versions in 1967 and 1968 respectively, followed by Arunachal Pradesh in 1971. They have been around long enough to merit a hard look at the imagined harm these laws are supposed to prevent—or punish.

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