By Vishal Arora
The remarks of Pope Benedict XVI about India's anti-conversion law that New Delhi has protested neither constitute 'interference' in a country's internal affairs nor suggest that Christian missionaries are converting Hindus 'forcibly', as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has alleged.
The Pope had told India's new ambassador to the Vatican Amitava Tripathi that 'the reprehensible attempt to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right of religious freedom must be firmly rejected not only as unconstitutional but also as contrary to the highest ideals of India's founding fathers who believed in a nation of peaceful coexistence and mutual tolerance between different religions and ethnic groups'.
Today's international community accepts the principle that the way any state treats its citizens is in the public domain, and external criticism from other governments or foreign religious leaders does not constitute interference in the internal affairs of the country. The UN's International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India has ratified, allow international accountability vis-à-vis human rights record of the countries.
As regards the constitutional validity of the legislation regulating conversion, the so-called Freedom of Religion Act is seen as an anti-conversion law by religious minorities, which say the law implicitly seeks to restrict conversion in general in the garb of prohibiting 'forcible' or 'fraudulent' conversions – a concern that has a legitimate ground.
The Freedom of Religion Acts in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa require that all conversions be reported to the state administration. Section 4 of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Rules, 1989, states that 'any person intending to convert his religion shall give a declaration before a magistrate… prior to such conversion that he intends to convert his religion on his own will'. Similarly, Section 5 makes it mandatory for the priest to intimate the details of the conversion to the government 15 days in advance.
If the priest and the prospective convert fail to inform the government of the conversion – even in case of a voluntary conversion – they can be prosecuted and, if found 'guilty', punished like common criminals.
Besides, this provision overlooks the basic fact that conversion is not always tangible, as it has to do with a person's faith, which may change gradually over a period of time for various reasons and one may not be able to tell the exact time and place of his or her conversion. In fact, the provision reduces this mystic phenomenon to a time-and-place-bound ceremony.
This narrow, mistaken definition of conversion with the provision for mandatory reporting of conversions allows the state to interfere in the arena of a citizen's life that is extremely personal to him or her.
Christianity, in particular, faces the brunt of this provision, as the sacrament of baptism is deemed as a 'conversion ceremony' and priests performing the ceremony are considered as those converting. Baptism, according to the Bible, is for those who have decided to follow the Christian faith and it is not a means to convert – this is why churches give baptism to all its registered members, whether they were born in a Christian family or have accepted Christianity from other backgrounds.
Further, these laws do not define the terms sufficiently, giving discretionary powers to the governments, which can be misused. For instance, 'allurement' is defined as an 'offer of any temptation in the form of any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind or grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise' that can both restrict religious and charitable activities and create ample opportunity for abuse and unjust prosecution. Such vague terms can leave a room for a government to indulge in religious policing like in Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, the Rajasthan bill, which was passed by the state assembly on April 7 and endorsement to which was denied by the governor Thursday, violates the right to equality before law promised in Article 14 of the constitution. For the bill explicitly exempts 'reconversion' to Hinduism from the purview of the law by defining conversion as adopting 'a religion other than one's forefathers' along the same lines as the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978, according to which conversion means 'renouncing an indigenous faith and adopting another faith or religion'.
This restriction on citizens' conversion to minority religions with a blanket freedom for the likes of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) to organise 'home-coming' ceremonies also implies that the laws seek to make it difficult for the majority community to practise their liberty to convert to other religions.
The allegation that Christian missionaries go to 'gullible' poor, illiterate Dalits and tribals living in remote areas to convert them using fraudulent means sounds like a Churchill statement at the time of the British leaving India – that the country was not capable of ruling itself, as a majority of its people were poor and illiterate.
The BJP owes an explanation as to how Dalits and tribals, if they are so naïve, can be allowed the right to cast votes to choose their representatives but not the freedom to decide what religion they want to follow.
One wonders why it is always the 'other' who objects to conversions, and never those who have accepted the religion. We are yet to see a 'Forum of Converts against Conversion' kind of group joining the BJP – which may never happen.
One also fails to understand why the party needs anti-conversion laws when not even a single person has been convicted of forcible or fraudulent conversion by any court in the country in the last more than 37 years.
(Vishal Arora is a writer on religious issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])
Copyright Indo-Asian News Service