IN COLONIAL TIMES, THERE WERE ANTI-CONVERSION LAWS
According to a study published by the US Library of Congress (LOC), laws prohibiting religious conversions were first enacted by princely states led by Hindu royal families during the British colonial period, notably in the late 1930s and early 1940s. According to the LOC study report, such rules were in place in “nearly a dozen princely states, including Kota, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Raigarh, Patna, Surguja, Udaipur, and Kalahandi.”
ATTEMPTS TO PASS A FEDERAL LAW
Following India’s independence, the Indian Parliament presented many anti-conversion measures, but none of them were passed. In 1954, the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill was introduced, with the goal of enforcing “missionary licensure and conversion registration with government officials.” In the Lok Sabha, this measure did not receive a majority of votes.
NOW FOR THE STATES
Several states have passed “Freedom of Religion” legislation over the years to prohibit religious conversions by force, deception, or seduction. The PRS Legislative Research organization has produced a paper comparing existing anti-conversion legislation in numerous states.
Eight states have “Freedom of Religion legislation” in place: Odisha (1967), (ii) Madhya Pradesh (1968), (iii) Arunachal Pradesh (1978), (v) Chhattisgarh (2000 and 2006), (vi) Gujarat (2003), (vii) Himachal Pradesh (2006 and 2019), (viii) Uttarakhand (2017). (2018).
Marriage is also declared void if it was solemnized for the primary purpose of conversion, or if a conversion was done purely for the sake of marriage, according to laws approved in Himachal Pradesh (2019) and Uttarakhand.
In addition, similar legislation was approved in the states of Tamil Nadu in 2002 and Rajasthan in 2006 and 2008. However, following complaints by the Christian minority, the Tamil Nadu Act was overturned in 2006, while the proposals in Rajasthan did not gain the governor’s and President’s approval.
The Uttar Pradesh Legislation Commission suggested introducing a new law to control religious conversions in November 2019, noting an increase in coerced or fraudulent religious conversions. As a result, the state government passed the current Ordinance.
IN ACTUALITY, ANTI-CONVERSION LAWS
Religious minority leaders and adherents have experienced intimidation and arrest as a consequence of these laws, according to more recent USCIRF reports, including one incidence in 2017.
In June 2017, for example, a Catholic nun and four native women were imprisoned on suspicion of coerced conversion. Three Christians were detained in Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa area in April 2017 after charges that they were converting others.
WHAT EXACTLY ARE THE ANTI-CONVERSION ACTS?
The PRS study uncovered several similar elements among state legislation. While all states prohibit conversions by force, fraud, or allurement, only Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh have laws prohibiting conversion by marriage.
Notification of Conversion: The law of Arunachal Pradesh is regarded to be the most forgiving in terms of requiring notice of conversion.
In all other states, the priest or “religious convertor,” as well as the converted individual, must give previous notification. The state with the harshest laws is Uttar Pradesh, which requires a person who intends to convert to send a 60-day notice to the district authorities. The priest must provide the notification one month ahead of time. The state of Uttarakhand has mandated a one-month notice period for both.
Punishment: The oldest laws, in Odisha and Madhya Pradesh, also carry the shortest sentences – one year in jail for forced conversion. Forcible conversion is punishable by up to five years in prison in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. In all states, the punishment is harsher when a juvenile or a woman is involved.
HM Seervai views the Supreme Court’s decision in Rev. Stanislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh (1977) as “obviously incorrect,” “productive of the greatest public evil,” and a ruling that “ought to be reversed” in his magisterial commentary on the Indian Constitution. The ruling is still in effect more than four decades later, and it has produced a slew of new laws that strike at the heart of Indian secularism. The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, is the most recent in this series.