The Karnataka assembly passed ‘The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill’ on 23RD December, 2021. With the passing of this bill Karnataka joins several other states which have already passed similar legislation. However, the passing of this bill has triggered a fresh wave of protests from Christian and Muslim religious organisations and several others. Questions have raised on the constitutional validity of such legislation which is alleged to be violative of the fundamental right to practice and propagate any religion.
The first such law to protect freedom of religion was passed by the state of Orissa in 1967. Prior to independence, several princely states had passed laws regulating or prohibiting conversions.
Anti-conversion Laws of Pre-Independence era:
British India has had no anti-conversion laws probably because the British themselves professed a proselytizing religion. However, many princely states had enacted such laws. Prominent among them were
1) The Rajgrah State Act, 1936 2) The Patna freedom of Religion Act, 1942 3) The Surguja State Apostasy Act, 1945 and 4)The Udaipur State Anti-Conversion Act 1946. Similar legislations were promulgated in Bikaner, Jodhpur, Kalahanadi and Kota etc. specifically against conversion to Christianity.
CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY DEBATE: APPREHENSIONS OVER INCLUSION OF THE WORD ‘PROPAGATE’ – WARNINGS OF SERIOUS DAMAGE TO HINDU SOCIETY AND RELIGION:
During the course of debate in the Constitutional assembly on religious freedom especially on the inclusion of the word ‘propagation’ in the fundamental rights, Shri Lokanath Misra (Orissa) raised his objection and expressed his serious apprehension that such an inclusion will
‘.. pave the way for the complete annihilation of Hindu culture, the Hindu way of life and manners. Islam has declared its hostility to Hindu thought. Christianity has worked out the policy of peaceful penetration by the back-door on the outskirts of our social life… But Hindu generosity has been misused and politics has over run Hindu culture‘
The apprehensions expressed in the Constituent assembly debates soon turned into reality and the country was to witness large scale inflow into India of men, material and money from evangelist organisations across the world with the sole purpose of converting the poor and illiterate with inducements of material gains and magic healings through the power of Jesus. No doubt, educational institutions, health care facilities were started with foreign funds. But along with service motive, the intention to convert into Christianity the beneficiaries of their services was always present and every effort was made towards this end.
FREEDOM OF RELIGION ACT BY STATE GOVERNMENTS – JUDICIAL SCRUTINY:
Within a decade of the Constitution of India coming into force, the issue of fraudulent religious conversions rocked the nation. Faced with increasing cases of religious conversion of innocent citizens through fraudulent means, the state of Orissa (1967). In Madhya Pradesh, Christian Missionary Activities Enquiry Committee, Madhya Pradesh under the Chairmanship of Dr. M. Bhawani Shankar Niyogi, a retired Chief Justice of the Nagpur High Court, submitted its report (famous as Niyogi Committee Report). Acting upon the report, the state of Madhya Pradesh (1968) enacted law regulating religious conversions. These acts were challenged in respective high courts and the aggrieved parties approached the Supreme Court in what is now as the ‘STANISLAUS CASE’.
The questions before the Supreme Court were,
(i) Whether the two Acts are in violation of fundamental right guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution and
(ii) Whether the State Legislature is competent to enact them. Considering the various aspects of the matter, Hon‘ble the Apex Court upholding the validity of both the Acts, further held that the State Legislatures were competent to enact such Acts
(iii) Whether the right to ‘propagate’ included right to convert a person to one’s own religion.
The Supreme Court in its judgement dated 17th January, 1977, upheld the constitutional validity of
both the Acts. It was held that:
(1) Article 25 guarantees to all persons right to freedom and conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health. The word ‘propagate’ has been used in the Article as meaning to transmit or spread from person to person or from place to place.
2) The Article does not grant right to convert other person to one’s own religion but to transmit or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenets. The freedom of religion enshrined in Art. 25 is not guaranteed in respect of one religion only but covers all religions alike which can be properly enjoyed by a person if he exercises his right in a manner commensurate with the like freedom of persons following other religion. What is freedom for one is freedom for the other in equal measure and there can, therefore, be no such thing as a fundamental right to convert any person to one’s own religion.
3) As regards the question of legislative competence, the High Court took note of some judgments of this Court and held that as “the phrase ‘public order’ conveys a wider connotation as laid down by their Lordships of the Supreme Court in the different cases. We are of the opinion that the subject matter of the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam, 1968 fails within the scope of Entry No. I of List II of the Seventh Schedule relating to the State List regarding public order.
FOCUS SHIFTS TO ‘CONVERSION FOR MARRIAGE’:
While the Freedom of Religion Acts passed were primarily aimed at regulating large scale conversions through allurements, inducements, allegations that members of a particular religion were making organised and concerted efforts to trap women of other religions into converting into their religion. In particular, the state of Kerala was witness to such large scale conversion of Hindu/ Christian girls into Islam. A set pattern emerged wherein these girls were approached by friends, classmates or acquaintances who then introduced them to Islamic preachers. These girls were then taken to centres set up to further motivate these girls into converting into Islam. Once they converted to Islam, they were immediately married off to Muslim men. This gave rise to the now infamous phrase ‘LOVE JIHAD’
In December, 2009, while hearing an application for grant of bail, The Hon’ble MR. Justice K.T.SANKARAN of Kerala High Court observed as follows:
“I have perused the case diary file. There are indications that several similar instances took place in the State of Kerala. It is stated that there is a movement or project which is called “Romeo Jihad” or “Love Jihad” conceived by a section of the Muslims. The idea appears to be to convert girls belonging to other religions to Islam. It is stated that Muslim boys are directed to pretend love to girls of other religion and get them converted to Islam. Lot of money is available for executing the project. There are men whose help is available at any time. Organisations are also there to implement the project.”
The judge directed the Director General of Police to investigate and submit a report into the movement of ‘Love Jihad’ or ‘Romeo Jihad’ and submit a report covering all aspects of the same viz., persons, organisations involved, funding, all India ramifications, links to smuggling/counterfeit syndicates. According to Kerala police, the girls said they were persuaded to convert to Islam and were directed not to disclose the activities of Popular Front which was allegedly assisting the two accused. “Their religious faith was questioned and insulted, they told police.”
From this point onwards, the attention of the nation was drawn towards this new development. Courts across the country started getting cases similar to the one described above. In 2014, while hearing a batch of writ petitions in Allahabad High Court, the following facts came to light.
Several cases have come to light wherein several girls from Kerala who had converted from Hindu/Christian faiths into Islam and were motivated to join the Islamic State forces fighting in Syria /Iraq and Afghanistan. Their spouses were killed in action in various battles. They were nick named as ‘ISIS brides’. After the capture of power by Taliban in Afghanistan, they have been freed from prisons and they await an uncertain feature. As we write this article, the Supreme Court of India has directed the Govt. of India to decide the case of Sonia Sebastian alias Ayisha whose father had approached the apex court to direct the government to extradite his daughter from Afghanistan to India. She and her husband had left India in 2016 to join ISIS in Afghanistan.
OBSERVATIONS OF VARIOUS HIGH COURTS IN CASES INVOLVING RELIGIOUS CONVERSIONS FOR PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE:
ALLAHABAD HIGH COURT – BATCH OF WRIT PETITIONS INVOLVING 5 CASES OF HINDU GIRLS CONVERTING TO ISLAM FOR PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE
(Page 159, 8th Report of 7th UP Law Commission)
In 2014, a batch of writ petitions filed before the Allahabad High Court praying for protection as married couple on the allegation that petition No.2 in each of the writ petitions performed Nikah with the petitioner No.1 girl after getting her religion converted from ‘Hindu’ to ‘Islam’.
The question before the court was:
“Whether conversion of religion of a Hindu girl at the instance of a Muslim boy,without any knowledge of Islam or faith and belief in Islam and merely for the purpose of Marriage (Nikah) is valid “
The following points emerged during the course of the court proceedings:
Case 1: “Petitioner No.1 stated that she do not remember when religion conversion and Nikah took place. She stated that petitioner No.2 brought her to one Sri Hafiz and got converted her religion and she does not remember that when her religion was converted. Thus, the religion conversion of petitioner No.1 does not appear to be voluntary as the religion was got converted by the petitioner No.2 and that too merely for the purposes of Nikah”
Case 2: “Perusal of the voluntary statement given on oath by the petitioners in the open Court in presence of learned counsel for the parties clearly shows that the averments made in the writ petition with regard to conversion and Nikah are based on suppression of facts and are misleading. The petitioner No.1 has not stated that she renounced Hindu religion or embraced Islam of her own freewill. Instead she stated that she does not know about Islam.
“The petitioners have not approached this Court with clean hands, clean mind and clean heart. On these facts it is evident that the writ petition is based on suppression of material facts and misleading averments and therefore it deserves to be dismissed”
A common feature in all these writ petitions are that petitioner No.2 (boy) in each of the writ petitions have got converted the religion of petitioner No.1 girl only for marriage. The petitioner No.1 girl in each of the writ petitions have stated that their religion was got converted by the petitioner No.2 for marriage. They have not stated that they have renounced ”Hindu’ religion.
A large number of cases of conversion being registered in various courts prompted 7th Uttar Pradesh Law Commission to take up suo motu to study the phenomena of conversions happening in the state. The Commission in its 8th report recommended as follows:
“the Commission is of the view that the incidents of conversion by force, fraud and allurement are still taking place in the State of U.P. and while other States of India, like Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh etc. have enacted a specific law on this point, then the State of U.P. should also consider to enact a specific law on this point to curb and control the fraudulent conversion”
The state of Uttarakhand had passed Freedom of Religion Act in 2018. This was following the 2017 recommendations of the Uttarakhand HC to pass such a law. In 2017, while passing a judgement , the High Court made the following recommendations to the state government.
“Before parting with the Judgement, it needs to be mentioned that that the Court has come across number of cases where the inter-religion marriages are organized. However, in few instances, the conversion of one religion to another religion is a sham conversion only to facilitate the process of marriage. In order to curb this tendency, the state government is expected to legislate the Freedom of Religion Act on the analogy of Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1986 as well, as Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006, without hurting the religious sentiments of the citizens. The Court while making this suggestions, is well aware that it is not the role of the Court to give suggestions to the State Government to legislate but due to fast changing social milieu, this suggestions is being made.”
RAJASTHAN HIGH COURT FRAMES GUIDELINES FOR REGULATING CONVERSIONS:
The Rajasthan High Court went one step ahead and issued a set of guidelines to be followed in cases of conversion of an individual from one religion to another. In a judgement delivered in December, 2017, the court said:
“… therefore, we are of the opinion that while protecting the fundamental right of freedom under Article 25 of the Constitution of India, some guidelines are necessary to check forcible conversion of religion because religion is a matter of faith and not of logic. Therefore, we deem it appropriate to give some guidelines to check the problem of forcible conversion of religion. Consequently, following guidelines are hereby issued..”
The Rajasthan Dharma Swatantrya Act, 2006 was enacted but it has not been implemented for want of Governor’s assent since 2006.
The state of Gujarat has passed Freedom of Religion Act in 2003. It was amended in 2021 through Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021. The Gujarat High Court had stayed few sections of the amended act for a deeper consideration of the provisions and their impact on fundamental rights and proof of allegations of fraud or coercion in inter faith marriages.
The state of Himachal Pradesh had passed Freedom of Religion Act in 2006. It was challenged in the state HC in 2011. The High Court upheld that the provisions of the act are not violative of Article 25(1) as the same had already been decided by Supreme Court in the Stanislaus case referred above. However, the court struck down the rules regarding giving prior intimation of intention to convert and waiver of notice n re-conversion to original religion. The existing act was replaced by a new Freedom of Religion Act, 2019 which was notified w.e.f 18th Dec. 2020.
LAXITY IN IMPLEMENTATION:
Even though the State of Orissa was the first to enact Freedom of Religion Act in 1967, the rules under the Act were framed only in the year 1989. It was in force during the time period in which late Graham Staines was working in the state of Orissa. From the Justice D.P.Wadhwa Commission of Inquiry it is clear that neither the team of late Graham Staines nor the district administration were aware of Act/ Rules of the above act nor did they make any attempt to follow the provisions of the Act. Thus it is beyond doubt that violations of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967 for prolonged periods of time were carried on with impunity by the evangelist teams led by late Graham Staines. In his despatches, late Graham Staines made mention of baptisms multiple number of times. As per the above Act and rules framed thereunder, every event of baptism shall be informed to the concerned District Magistrate. But there is no mention of any such intimation by late Graham Staines. Also the individual changing his religion has to declare his intention to do so to a Magistrate 1st Class of the jurisdiction concerned. The despatches do not speak of any such declaration being filed.
A number of witnesses who testified before the Commission said that ‘cure from health problems’ as the prime reason for conversion to Christianity. Does not the promise of magic cure upon conversion amount to ’fraud’ under the above Act? In fact some of the witnesses reverted back to Hinduism when the promised magic cures did not materialise. D.P.Wadhwa Commission of Inquiry recorded their dismay as follows:
“Both the District Magistrates and the Superintendent of Police also did not have a proper working knowledge of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act and were not aware of the provisions of the Act and its rules.
BY K. SAHA DEV, ASSOCIATE, CENTRE FOR SOUTH INDIAN STUDIES, HYDERABAD
Thus we can observe that the earliest Freedom of Religion Acts were passed in India 53 years ago and these acts have stood up to the test of judicial scrutiny at the highest level. In particular they were held to be not violating the fundamental right to freedom of religion as guaranteed in Article 25 of the Constitution of India. In addition, several High courts in India have taken the lead and called upon the respective states to enact suitable laws to prevent forcible and fraudulent conversion of religion. The acts passed in various states should be implemented without any laxity so that the gullible are not affected by fraudulent religions conversions through allurement, incentives or marriage proposals. The protests launched by various organisations repeating the same accusations which have made in last 50 years are an exercise in futility. It is high time these organisations respect the wisdom of the legislatures which have enacted the Freedom of Religion Acts and the wisdom of various courts which have upheld these acts.