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EXPLORING THE LEGALITY OF RELIGIOUS CONVERSION

Introduction

Religious conversions have become much of a debated topic in contemporary India, more specifically due to the enforcement of anti-conversion laws by some states. Also, the Supreme Court is recently hearing a PIL against forced conversion. Therefore, in light of these raising issues regarding conversions it becomes important to distinguish legal conversions from forceful ones and understand the role of the state in curbing forceful conversions.

Religious Conversions

Religious conversion refers to a change in religion and the adoption of values of one particular religious denomination while excluding other denominations. It means breaking, abandoning one denomination and connecting to another by adhering to its principles and following its tenets.

Reasons for religious conversion

There are several reasons for which people can convert from one religion to other including active conversion by free choice due to a change in beliefs, secondary conversion, deathbed conversion, conversion for convenience and marital conversions and forced conversion such as conversion by violence or charity.

In his article Freedom of Religion and Right to Conversion the writer has explored the following reason for conversion. A person can also change religion with the conviction that the religion he is a part of since his birth has not lived up to his pious expectations. A person may lose faith in his own religion due to the strict tenets and practices and may embrace some other religion which would provide better spiritual well-being or fulfil his aspirations. Sometimes a person may wish to change their religion without any particular reason. Therefore, it is not always required to have a reason for a change in religion; it can depend on the personal thoughts and beliefs of the convert.

However, there are some special reasons for conversions in India, often these conversions are done for trivial reasons like polygamy, admission in institutions affiliated with a particular religion and converting to casteless religions for social dignity, for economic and other religious benefits.

Legality of religious conversions

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international conventions on human rights mention the right to freedom of religion being inclusive of the right to change the religion or belief as per the choice of the individual and freely practice it.

Preamble to the constitution provides the citizens with the “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship.” This liberty in exercise also includes the freedom to follow any religion’s faith and beliefs, supporting conversion.

Article 25-28 in Part III of the constitution provides for the fundamental right to freedom of religion. Article 25 states “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.” However, this right not being absolute can be curbed, subjected to public order, morality and health. Also, clause (2) of the article provides the state with the power to intervene and regulate any economic, financial, political or other secular activity related to the practice of religion. Article 26 provides for the freedom to manage religious affairs subjected to restrictions. From here it can be inferred that the freedom of conscience and right to profess religion implies freedom to change religion as well.

Since Article 25 allows the right to propagate any religion it is important to understand whether the right to conversion comes within the ambit of the right to propagation. Propagation of any religion means spreading the religious ideas in a way attracting other religion followers to the tenets and beliefs of their religion. Whereas conversion means a change in the religious of a person by leaving one religion and following another for some reason. At the time of framing the Indian constitution earlier, it allowed for ‘conversion’ but later in the final draft, the word was replaced by ‘propagation’ following the recommendations of the Sub-committee on minorities.

Does right to propagate include right to convert?

The constitution does not explicitly allow for religious conversion but in the case of Rev. Stanislaus vs State of Madhya Pradesh the Supreme Court elaborated on propagation as:

“The word ‘propagate’ has been used in the Article as meaning to transmit or spread from person to person          or from place to place. The Article does not grant the right to convert another 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 freedom of persons following other religions.” Through this, the Supreme Court made it clear that no one has a fundamental right to convert the religion of another person for everyone has the freedom of conscience to follow any or no religion of their choice.  Religious conversion is legal when it is per the free will of the converter, without any coercion, allurement or fraudulent means.

The court in this case also cited a previous judgement of Ratilal Panachand Gandhi v. The State of Bombay & Ors, where it emphasised a person’s right to propagate saying that the person’s freedom of religion is not confined to following the beliefs approved by his judgement and conscience but also has a right to perform such acts which are sanctioned by his religion and further spread them to others.

Thus, it can be concluded that under Article 25 right to propagate does not include the right to convert because propagation by any means does not include persuading any person to convert to their religion.

Legal procedure for conversion

For a conversion to be legal it is required that it shall be with bona fide intentions and in good belief. The 235th Law Commission Report in detail discusses the issue of the legality of conversion. The committee researched in detail about what shall be the procedure for a lawful conversion, looking into various pronouncements of the Supreme Court regarding conversions it was derived that there is no formal procedure for conversion. No particular religious rituals or ceremonies are necessary to bring conversion, the genuine intention of the reconvert is enough to effectuate conversion. Although no formal purification ceremonies are required, there shall be some credible evidence to prove the conversion is bona fide. Also, there can be some specific ceremonious procedure for conversion to a particular religion.

Some states in order to protect the individual’s right to religion have enacted anti-conversion laws punishing unlawful conversions. These acts made it obligatory for the convert to intimate the District Magistrate about the conversion within a stipulated time by filing a declaration and registering their conversion.

The general procedure includes an intimation in the government gazette, publishing an advertisement in the newspaper and later, presenting certain documents by attaching an affidavit proving the genuineness of your conversion. But due to the lack of a specific procedure mostly it is left to the Registering Officer to decide the genuineness of the conversion.

Conclusion

India is a country with diverse religions and in 1976 through an amendment in the preamble of constitution India was made a ‘secular’ country. The Right to freedom of religion is fundamental and people have the liberty to choose their own religion.

Matters related to religion including conversion and reconversions are governed by personal laws, but the Parliament has the power to make laws to maintain public order. Conversion with bonafide intention and in good faith is legal, but when it is through means of force, threat, allurement or any other fraudulent means it is an illegal and punishable offence. The state has the power to make laws to punish forced conversion. Also the right to conversion is not a fundamental right as propagation doesn’t means conversion.

Author(s) Name: Ananya Sonakiya (National Law University Odisha)