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Acts of Bad Faith: Anti-conversion laws in India

ICC Note:
This is an in-depth article discussing the legal ramifications of several Indian states’ anti-conversion laws. In essence, the laws are worded so broadly that they could be used to prohibit legitimate charity work by Christian organizations, let alone evangelism efforts.

Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network (1/16/07) – On 29 December 2006, the government of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh passed the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill 2006. The government claimed it was intended to prevent religious conversions through “force” or “inducement”.

The bill – yet to be signed into law – is modelled on other existing anti-conversion laws in other Indian states, but it is unique in that it was adopted by a Congress Party-led state government. The Congress Party had opposed similar laws in the past in other states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. However, Congress-ruled state governments in Arunachal Pradesh and Orissa have passed acts similar to the Himachal Pradesh bill, and taken together, these pieces of legislation expose the hollowness of the Congress Party’s claims of being a secular party.

Once Himachal Pradesh signs the bill into law, it would be the sixth Indian state to adopt anti-conversion legislation, joining the ranks of Arunachal Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Gujarat. A seventh state, Jharkhand is also expected to pass an anti-conversion law.

There is no doubt that conversions brought about by violence or other equally illegitimate means of coercion cannot be permitted. Indeed, such conversions violate the freedom of religious beliefs protected within both the international instruments and the Indian Constitution.

However, the language adopted by the Acts in these states goes far beyond protecting this fundamental right.

The definition of force

All the anti-conversion laws share a common definition of what constitutes “force” in forced conversions. As the Rajasthan Bill provides:

‘Force’ includes a show of force or a threat of injury any kind, including threat of divine displeasure or social ex-communication.

It is uncertain how this prohibition will work in practice. For example, if a religion teaches that non-adherents risk divine displeasure (as with Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), teaching this article of faith may constitute an act of force under the Act. This may be contrary to the freedom to change one’s religion. As H. M. Seervai points out in his discussion of the right to propagate, “[a] person cannot choose if he does not know what choices are open to him (sic)”. As a result of the overly broad definition of “force”, a person engaging another in order to bring about his or her conversion cannot inform the potential convert what the religion teaches about non-adherents. This limits the information that may be made available to the potential proselyte. An individual cannot fully exercise his or her freedom to change religion if such information is withheld.

The definition of allurement

According to the Rajasthan Bill:

‘[a]llurement’ means offer of any temptation in the form of
1) any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind;
2) grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise.

The Madhya Pradesh, Chattissgarh and Gujarat anti-conversion laws rely on an identical definition. The Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh laws are worded slightly differently:

[i]nducement shall include the offer of any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind and shall also include the grant of any benefit, either pecuniary or otherwise.

The High Court of Orissa struck this definition down as being too vague and passing into the realm of morality. Though the High Court’s decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in Stainislaus v. Madhya Pradesh & Ors, the Supreme Court did not discuss this aspect of the High Court’s judgment.

The potentially broad scope of the term “allurement” is troubling.

Christian groups have expressed concern that the provision might be used to prohibit acts of charity, as they might be interpreted as “temptations” to convert. As charitable acts are also fundamental to many religious traditions, such an interpretation may restrict the freedom of its adherents to practice their religion or religious beliefs. It is conceivable that the provision of education or medical care by religious denominations might also be interpreted as “temptations” intended to induce conversions… [Go To Full Story]