New Anti-Conversion Law to become a nightmare to Opposition

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(MS Shanker)

The Haryana state government headed by Manohar Lal Khattar has taken the lead in formulating the dos and don’ts of ‘Forcible Conversion Law’ in the wake of the Supreme Court viewing it seriously and directing the Centre to find legal ways to prevent it.

This swift move has not only become a ‘nightmare’ to many Opposition-led states across India, but has left them squirming because they cannot make political capital out of it. Moreover, they are haunted by the fear of losing their ‘minority’ vote banks.

Though it is no secret that the ‘forcible conversions’ are happening right under the nose of various state governments across the country, many opposition parties, including the regional satraps, continue to turn a blind eye for reasons best known to them.

A practicing senior lawyer Ashwini Upadhyaya chose to file a PIL to draw the attention of the country’s highest judicial institution, the Supreme Court on this issue which has been somewhat of an elephant in the room for decades.

Interestingly, a bench of the Supreme Court consisting of justices M R Shah and Hima Kohli, while dealing with the petition found some prima facie truth in the nature of this issue and directed the Centre to frame legislation that shall prevent such happenings. The Bench felt that forced conversions are not only a big threat to the country, but are also a violation of the religious faith of the common citizen and his religion. “Yes, it poses a threat to the independence and sovereignty of the country,’ the Constitution Bench said without mincing any words.

“There may be freedom of religion but there may not be freedom of religion by forced conversion… This is a very serious issue. Everybody has the right to choose their religion, but not by forced conversion or by giving temptation,” a Bench of Justices M.R. Shah and Hima Kohli said.

The Court ordered the Centre to file an affidavit, detailing what actions it proposed to take to curb forced conversions. It said such conversions were reported to be found more in poor and tribal areas.

Responding to the apex court, the Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta while referring to the Supreme Court’s 1997 judgment by a Constitution Bench in Rev. Stanislaus Versus State of Madhya Pradesh, which has held that the word “propagate” in Article 25 did not give “the right to convert another person to one’s religion, but to transmit or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenets”.

Mehta said the word “propagate” had come up for consideration in the Constituent Assembly debates. “It was decided that the term did not mean forcible conversions,” the law officer said.

Haryana Assembly Passes Anti-conversion Bill | Chandigarh News - Times of India

He had also submitted that the apex court had dealt with Acts passed by Madhya Pradesh and Orissa against forcible conversions and had held that “freedom of conscience of every person includes freedom not to be allowed to change his conscience and convert…”

The Constitution Bench had also held there was “no fundamental right to convert another person to one’s religion”. Freedom of religion is not guaranteed in respect of one religion only but covers all religions alike.

Article 25(1) of the Constitution says that “subject to public order, morality and health… all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion”.

He said the Constitution Bench had also held there was “no fundamental right to convert another person to one’s religion”. Freedom of religion is not guaranteed in respect of one religion only, but covers all religions alike, Mehta added.

Earlier, the petitioner Upadhyaya argued that there should be a special law against forced conversions or the Act should be incorporated as an offense in the Indian Penal Code.

Responding to that Justice Shah agreed with the petition as the difficulty lies when it comes to who will file the complaint – the state concerned may not file. Hence, it is the Centre that has to formulate a stringent law.

While this was happening, the BJP-led Haryana government has come up with a law that says ‘forcible conversions’ is hereafter a ’non-bailable’ crime in the state. The state’s new law, which was made public on Saturday, makes it abundantly clear that if anyone wants to change their religion they have to give 30-day prior applications to the Commissioner who will check whether it’s forced or willful. No further ambiguity in the state law which further states that strict punishment for anyone hiding their religion for the sake of marriage.

This should trigger other states to follow, more so another BJP-led state Gujarat, which has also filed a petition in support of Upadhyay in the apex court.

Meanwhile, the Solicitor-General sought more time to file an affidavit that the apex court had asked to and none other than Home Minister Amit Shah responded positively stating that before formulating a law, his government would like to take the views of all concerned stakeholders. In other words, he did make the Centre’s intentions clear that it would certainly bring in strong legislation to put an end to the menace as the apex court views the same as it poses a serious threat to the country’s sovereignty and integrity.

With the elections to several states, including Telangana, ahead of the Lok Sabha in 2024, it may certainly become an ‘election issue’ as the BJP may take maximum advantage by promising the electorate that if voted to power they will certainly bring in such legislation.

The BJP knows fully well that neither the Congress, nor AAP, Samajwadi party, BSP, JD-U, JD-S, TMC, NCP, or TRS/BRS, whatever the name of the party in Telangana under KCR, may be, none of its political adversaries would ever dare to bring in or back a legislation opposing forced religious conversions, because it would upset their political applecart based on minority appeasement.

Thus the ‘Forcible Conversion Law’ is bound to become a thaw in the Opposition’s flesh, while the BJP has nothing to be wary of in this regard. On a parallel note, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had also promised to bring in another important law like the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) sooner than later, as it too has got the nod of the apex court.

Religious Conversion By Force, Allurement A Serious Issue, Affects Security Of Country And Freedom Of Citizens: SCOne sometimes wonders why it took the BJP eight long years to even consider bringing a strong anti-conversion bill against forced religious conversions.

The Hindu Sanatana Dharma has faced the onslaught of barbaric invasions in the middle ages when it was at the height of its glory, civilisationally and culturally. Through all the attacks of these marauders and pillagers, the Hindu civilization managed to survive and retain much of its pristine nature.

Through these medieval centuries thousands of temples were destroyed, millions slaughtered and millions others converted at the point of sword. Yet the great civilisation, which once stretched all the way to Afghanistan, managed to survive, which in itself is a testament to its spiritual and cultural greatness.

After waves of these barbaric invaders, who later became mediaeval rulers, the British not merely colonised the country, but also colonised the mind of this great nation. They used several insidious methods to divide the people of this vast country and also employed their missionaries and engaged them in mass conversion sprees.

This whole activity of religious conversions and “harvesting souls” by missionaries continued actively under Congress governments at the Centre and various states. In truth, even the BJP-led Modi government has done little to check the activities of proselytising groups.

Therefore, the move to bring an anti-conversion law to rein in such groups indulging in forced religious conversions is a welcome one, even though it might send a flutter in the ranks of the opposition.