The Supreme Court has taken a stern view of forced religious conversion, calling it “very serious issue” that may impact the “security of the country” and upholding “the freedom of religion and conscience”. It has asked the Union government to state its position on the issue while considering a public interest litigation seeking directions to the Law Commission of India to prepare a report and a bill to control and curb “deceitful religious conversion”.
Religious conversion is allowed under our Constitution but there is no provision for a deceitful or fraudulent conversion. The court was in fact stating the obvious when it said that forced religious conversion is a serious issue. In fact, it is not just an ‘issue’ but a criminal offence in several Indian states, warranting a sentence up to 10 years, with a fine of Rs 50,000, in specific cases. Most states have made it mandatory that every conversion has to be notified in advance to the local government authorities, including the district magistrate. Failure to do so can also invite prosecution.
The apex court finds it to be so big a phenomenon as to affect the security of the nation. As for the solicitor general, who represented the Union government, it was more specific: giving rice, wheat or other things to the poor for conversion is rampant in tribal areas, he told the court.
It may be a sheer coincidence that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right wing organisation which believes in religious conversions, coined the term ghar wapsi and openly talked about it, has also called for bringing in a “a central law forthwith to rid India of the problem of illegal conversions”.
What is missing in the whole debate is data. That is, data on deceitful conversions that have assumed such proportions that the Supreme Court finds them a threat to national security. The government which says it is rampant also has not bothered to present data on the same.
The apex court has asked the Union government to come up with a plan on the further steps that can be taken to curb such conversations by force, allurement or fraudulent means. Before proceeding further, it must also ask the government to present before it, and the nation, a sense as to the extent of this illegal activity that is going on in our country. Verifiable data that forms the basis of the concern of the apex court and that of the Union government will be a preliminary requisite for the government or the court for formulating further steps. It must also be investigated if the state governments which have enacted the laws have failed to implement them, and, if so, the reasons thereof. Whether the Union government can legislate on issues that largely come under “public order” and “police” must also be discussed.
A country which is proud of its syncretic culture must tread cautiously when it comes to social dynamics which also includes religion. Despite the Union government asserting that there is no data on love jihad in the country, several states brought in laws to regulate inter-faith marriages. High courts had to intervene in those states to protect the lives and dignity of people.
Concern about illegal activities must be addressed as long as they are based on verifiable data.