Recently, the state legislature in Madhya Pradesh has approved a law aimed at making religious conversions harder there.
The law says a person wishing to convert and the priest conducting the ceremony will have to inform the authorities in advance. The new law provides for a year in prison and cash fines to the person who converts and the priest who conducts the ceremony without informing the authorities.
This is hardly India's first instance of such a law.
In 2005, the government in Rajasthan introduced a law banning religious conversion. Three years ago, politicians in Gujarat approved a controversial bill ostensibly designed to stop forced religious conversions.
In 2002, the state legislature in Tamil Nadu passed an ordinance banning religious conversions-though the new government led by DMK announced in May that the law would be annulled soon.
Evidently, these laws are the state governments' reaction to the depressed classes pointing to the lack of socio-economic development as their reason for quitting the Hindu fold.
But does India want to be compared to Islamic states that are imprisoned by an impoverished idea that apostasy should lead to death or death threats?
Mass conversions by the Dalits, whether to Islam or Christianity, have always projected a political message. Mostly, it is an effort by the weaker sections to draw the attention of the government to their development needs.
In many cases, there are "re-conversions" after governmental intervention and promises of corrective measures by the district administration.
A section of the media and political establishment would claim that mass conversions or threats of mass conversions create social tension in the affected area and the government is forced to act in the interests of those threatening conversion.
More importantly one must ask: is banning religious conversion constitutional?
From a layperson's perspective, Article 25 (1) of the Constitution states that "subject to public order, morality and health and other provisions of this part (Part III), all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion."
Under the freedom of speech which the Constitution guarantees, any religious community is free to persuade others to join their faith. Thus, conversion by free exercise of the conscience has to been recognised and cannot be banned under the constitution.
Arya Samajists, for example, should be free to carry on "Sudhi" ceremonies, open to Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs, and every other religionist, so long as they follow public order, morality and other conditions that have to be observed in any civilised society.
One may argue that the Constitution explicitly grants one the right to transmit or spread one's religion by an exposition of its tenets, but not the right to convert through force or social and economic "bribes".
It has to be remembered that Article 25 (1) guarantees "freedom of conscience" to every citizen and not merely to the followers of one particular religion.
Thus, there is no fundamental right to convert another person to one's own religion because, if a person undertakes the conversion of a person to his religion as distinguished from his effort to transmit or spread the tenets of his religion, that would impinge on the freedom of conscience guaranteed to all the citizens.
This specious reasoning which proceeds on the premise that a person's freedom of conscience gives him the right to practice his own religion ignores that the same freedom of conscience gives him the right to choose another religion and to be converted to another religion.
Sometimes when a person learns about the virtues of another religion and the advantages of following it, he may be persuaded to be converted.
In other words, propagation of religion with a view to its being accepted by a person gives an opportunity to the latter to exercise his right to choose his religion. Hence, the prevention of conversion infringes the right to be converted or to choose another religion and thereby infringes his freedom of conscience.
What is meant by the "ban on conversions?'"
The Constitution clearly empowers each individual to preach his own religion and each to choose his own religion. Based on this, if one chooses to change his religion, there can be no law preventing him from doing so. Apart from the legality, it goes against history and human nature to impose a total ban on conversions.
In addition to Christians, Hare Krishna's and Muslims proselytising, Buddhist monks went to Cambodia, China, Japan, Sri Lanka and other places in the Far East spreading Buddhism.
Though on a small scale, the Arya Samajists are converting or reconverting people of others faiths to Hinduism. Often conversion is a result of marrying outside a person's faith. For instance, when a Hindu marries a Jew or a Christian.
Of course, all these conversions are made peacefully, by persuasion.
Instead of a fracas on preventing conversions, there should be a national debate on why people choose to be converted. If it is by force, fraud or undue influence, such conversions can be prevented by legislation.
But one of the strongest motivations for converting to another religion is low socio-economic status. These individuals feel that they can live with more dignity as members of the religion to which they are converting.
Though untouchability was abolished by the Constitution, it still persists throughout India. For example, in many hotels water is served in separate glasses to the Dalits (who make up 250 million of India's population).
Although the Constitution provides certain safeguards to protect persons who suffer from low socio-economic status, the past 56 years since the Constitution came into being has proved that they are not adequate.
Measures have to be taken immediately to improve their economic and social status to such an extent that they do not convert in order to enjoy a better life as members of a new religious group, but because they genuinely feel convinced of the tenets of that religion.
Hopefully, we will see a day when every person voluntarily chooses which religion he wishes to practice and the expression "conversion" loses its meaning.
India, which is known for its tolerance, has lived with Christianity for almost two thousand years, Zoroastrianism for 1,400 years and Islam for over a millennium.
Let us all remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi: "I do not expect India of my dreams to develop one religion, i.e., to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another."
Maqbool Jamil is based in United States and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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