Converting Religion, Converting law: Rajshree Chandra

Guest Post by RAJSHREE CHANDRA

The right to freedom of religion  (Art. 25 of the Indian Constitution) in a country like India has a burden so extensive and a content so capacious that the same right functions both as an instrument of individual liberty As well as a mode through which the state intervenes to discipline and curtail religious freedom. It has a history so diverse and conflicted that the right often become a mode of settling quid pro quo battles between religious publics, and law often becomes hostage to the principle of ‘historical correction’.

There have been various modes of historical corrections. If the demolition of Babri Masjid was one, ghar wapasi – a return home to one’s religion – is another. The recent ghar wapasi episode in Agra, where RSS affiliate Bajrang Dal converted 57 Muslims to Hinduism; the proposed and then withdrawn conversion of Muslims and Christians in Aligarh on 25th December 2014 by the RSS’s Dharm Jagran Samiti; and the scheduled holy dip of an expected 50,000 “reconverts” (of the last five years) in the Godavari during the Kumbh at Nashik next August are instances and signs of the “re-conversion” rhetoric steadily mainstreaming itself. The question is how does the state and law respond to this?

‘Re-conversions’ are not new in Indian history. Katju & Sikand document instances of mass conversions of Muslims into Hinduism from 1947 onwards, and more forcefully and openly from the 1990s onwards, as part of the Shuddhi (purification) movement. The VHP, an adjunct of the Sangh, extols the practice of ghar wapasi and had claimed that over 200,000 Christians had been converted to Hinduism. The re-conversion argument – of shuddhi and ghar wapasi – is invoked by the various factions of the Sangh Parivar as a modus that aims to correct the history of conversions away from Hinduism. 

What is puzzling is not the alacrity and the zeal with which the Hindutva organizations practice conversions. Various organizations like the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the RSS, apart from their numerous affiliates, have been quite zealously and regularly involved in conversions especially from the 1990s onwards, quite like conversion practices by followers of other religions. Why should we expect Hinduism alone to be saddled with a non-proselytizing baggage?

What is puzzling is that while outfits like those of Christian missionaries are decrying and opposing the proposed anti-conversion law, the RSS, VHP, BJP, indeed the entire saffron family, is quite vociferous in their demand for such a law. They want the state to step into matters of personal religious freedom and make conversions a matter of state jurisdiction and legal adjudication. The current BJP government has also demonstrated a keen interest in enacting an all-Indian anti-conversion law,  in spite some of its ministers showing open and vociferous support for ‘re-conversions’.

Let us look at a key assumption on which the anti-conversion-law rhetoric rests. It first seeks to draw a distinction between conversions and ghar wapasi, so that the latter can somehow be imagined to lie outside the scope of proposed anti-conversion laws. It rests on mythic narratives and a conceit that there are some ‘original inhabitants’ – Hindus – who during the course of various regimes in India have converted to non-Hindu religions under duress and a mix of fraud and force. It suggests that this anomaly is in need of correction. And finally, it proposes that the only way this can be done is for the law to be selective – i.e. stop other religious conversions while it continues to sanction (re)conversions to Hinduism.

There is curious anomaly here: how is that some ‘convertors’ do not see the contradiction between their continuing acts of conversion and an anti-conversion law? Do they not know that law is not likely to grant selective permissions and censures for religious conversions? Are they not aware that it is the deemed function of law to devise fair principles of adjudication? Do they not understand that it is this quality of law that distances it from the conduct of politics? Or are they banking on a recourse that can devise legal provisions in such a manner that ghar-wapasi would be legally permissible but other conversion, not?

An intuitive response of those who regard law to be an objective force would be that such views are limited to those of the ‘fringe’. Some BJP supporters would even be angered and frustrated by how such talk detracts attention from PM’s governance agenda. They would perhaps seek assurance in the fact that eventually when law would come to preside, it would serve principles of fair arbitration. That it will not selectively discriminate. That it will apply equally to all religious conversions.

But why does the saffron family not see law thus? Why does it continue to clamour for an anti-conversion law? The answer lies is in the assurance that previous legal articulations of anti-conversions provide. They demonstrate how law can indeed be made to serve the dual function of stopping one kind of conversions while permitting another. There are six states that have legislated against conversions – Orissa (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968, amended 2013), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Chhattisgarh (2000), Gujarat (2003), Himachal Pradesh (2006), and Rajasthan (2008). The common thread that runs through these legislations is that use of force, allurement, inducement and fraud in securing religious conversions is a cognizable offence and punishable by law. Thus far all religious conversions appear to be treated equally.

 But then it gets unequal.

Anti-conversion laws in Rajasthan, Arunachal, and Chhattisgarh explicitly exclude re-conversions to “native” faiths. In other words, conversions to the religion of one’s ‘forefathers’ (Rajasthan), or to one’s ‘indigenous faith’ (Arunachal Pradesh), or to one’s ‘original religion’ (Chhattisgarh), would fall outside the legally understood meaning of conversion and would not be treated as conversion by state law. The ghar-wapasi argument is therefore not just a ‘fringe’ argument, but one that is legally feasible, if deemed to be politically desirable.

In the first and most glaring instance, a clamp down on conversions is against a citizen’s right to religion as well as against his/her foundational civic liberties, that is, the right to equality (before law) and the freedom of expression. Normatively, it is impossible to draw clear lines that can help law adjudicate between illegitimate and legitimate conversions. A conversion that seeks to draw a distinction between conversions and re-conversions erodes the very basis of constitutional democracy, that is, equality before law. Law is seldom as objective as it appears, but an anti-conversion law which uses this distinction, is as brazen, as partisan, as undemocratic and as majoritarian as any law can get.

Let’s stop calling it law: It is communal politics by other means.

3 thoughts on “Converting Religion, Converting law: Rajshree Chandra

  1. tu

    Right to convert cannot be a fundamental right and the same applies to all faiths. This is the core of the judgment of Supreme Court. If there are laws to regulate conversion when conversion is a systematic activity undertaken by institutions and groups what is wrong with them per se. Should a secular state ignore this issue of conversion purely as a question of individual choice when there are any number of groups and institutions working towards converting individuals and groups from one faith to another.Why not have a law that applies to all parts of India to address the issue of conversion by force/threat/allurement and make it applicable to all faiths. Wont that be a fair solution to this issue. If conversion is wrong then so is re-conversion. One cannot argue that conversion from one faith to another is fine but only converting back to one’s original faith is wrong.

  2. tu, I concede there is a worry about free-for-all conversions, especially those that seeks to draw religion into politics by making it an electoral tool. So you convert to prop up your numbers, offer electoral sops, and such like. There are two dangers here – one that it will really, irreparably communalize the electorate; two, it will breed a new, very explicit, in-your- face majoritarianism. Anything the minorities can do, the majority can do better, more forcefully and more forcibly. However, the problem is that it is not possible to draw bright lines that can distinguish between kinds conversions, modes of allurements, of inducements, motivations, vested interests – these make for very fuzzy legal categories! It is for this reason that I suggest that state should be kept out of religious conversion issue. It is a matter of individual, civil liberty and this space should be as far as possible cordoned off from state intervention. Not guarding this line will perhaps have more dangerous consequences than free conversions. And it is not my case that conversions are fine but re-conversions are not; I think both should be legally permitted…. my personal distaste for ghar-wapasi notwithstanding.

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