Adults free to choose their faith, says Supreme Court
The Supreme Court on Friday termed as “very harmful” a petition that asked for a strict central law to check religious conversion and observed that adults are free to choose heir faith.
A bench headed by justice Rohinton F Nariman expressed strong displeasure at the plea by Bharatiya Janata Party leader and lawyer Aswhini Upadhyay, warning him of a monetary penalty if he chose to press the petition.
The bench, which also included justices BR Gavai and Hrishikesh Roy, cautioned senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayan, who represented Upadhyay in the matter, as soon as the hearing commenced.
“What kind of a petition is this? This is a very harmful petition. If you are going to argue this, we are going to impose a heavy cost on you,” justice Nariman told Sankanarayanan.
The senior lawyer, on his part, sought to rely upon the Supreme Court’s judgement in Sarla Mudgal’s case in 1995 wherein the top court made observations regarding the necessity of having a unified central legislation on religious conversion.
“There is a reason why the word ‘propagate’ is there in the Constitution. You have to have some meaning for that word. There is no reason why somebody above 18 cannot choose one’s own religion or somebody else’s religion,” retorted justice Nariman.
Sankaranarayanan tried to argue that this petition was not about interfaith marriages after the judge commented that an adult could choose even the religion of somebody else. But justice Nariman replied: “It is exactly about that. You argue this petition at your own risk. We will impose a heavy cost on you.”
Justice Nariman also said that, personally, he disagreed with the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Rev Stainislaus case in 1977 whereby it was held that the right to propagate did not include the right to convert someone to one’s own religion. This judgment, therefore, upheld the constitutional validity of the laws enacted by the Madhya Pradesh and Odisha legislatures prohibiting conversion by force, fraud or allurement.
At this point, the counsel sought to withdraw this petition with the liberty to file a representation before the law commission of India. The bench, however, refused to give this relaxation and asked Sankaranarayanan to immediately decide on withdrawing it, which the lawyer did.
Citing the absence of a central law to stop religious conversion by fraud or allurement, Upadhyay urged the top court to issue appropriate directions to the Centre for considering a unified law in terms of the observation made by it in the Sarla Mudgal case. One of the judges on the division bench in the Sarla Mudgal case asked the Centre to consider the feasibility of appointing a committee to enact a Conversion of Religion Act.
Upadhyay said the Centre should be directed to comply with this direction and in the meantime, the Supreme Court may issue certain directives to check fraudulent and forcible religious conversion. The plea claimed religious conversion by “carrot and stick” and “by hook or crook” not only offended constitutional provisions but also went against the principles of secularism.
Upadhyay pointed out that although eight states, Odisha (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Chhattisgarh (2000), Gujarat (2003), Himachal Pradesh (2006), Jharkhand (2017) and Uttarakhand (2018) have enacted anti-conversion laws, there was an urgent need for the Centre to bring out such a law with a minimum imprisonment of three years along with a hefty fine, applicable across the country.
After the hearing, Upadhyay told HT: “I will immediately approach the Union home ministry, law ministry and the law commission of India with my plea on taking appropriate steps towards a central legislation. I will approach the Supreme Court again if no effective steps are taken in the next six months.”