KAFILA – 10 years of a common journey

Converting Religion, Converting law: 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ghar wapasi episode in Agra, where RSS affiliate Bajrang Dal converted 57 Muslims to Hinduism; the proposed and then withdrawn conversion of Muslims and Christians in Aligarh on 25th December 2014 by the RSS’s Dharm Jagran Samiti; and the scheduled holy dip of an expected 50,000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.