Forced conversions may ultimately affect national security, freedom of religion, Supreme Court tells Centre

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The Supreme Court on Monday said religious conversions by means of force, allurement or fraud may “ultimately affect the security of the nation and freedom of religion and conscience of citizens” while directing the Centre to “step in” and clarify what it intends to do to curb compulsory or deceitful religious conversions.

“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 on or before November 22, 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.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre, said forced conversions were “rampant” in tribal areas.

“Giving of rice, wheat, clothes, etc., etc., can never be a ground for asking a person to change his conscience, or bargain on my fundamental right to religion,” Mr. Mehta agreed.

The petitioner, advocate Ashwini Upadhyay, said there should be a special law against forced conversions or the Act should be incorporated as an offence in the Indian Penal Code.

“But the difficulty is, who will file the complaint?… the State concerned may not file also… That is why the Union must step in,” Justice Shah reacted.

“In many cases, the victims would not know he has been the subject matter of a criminal offence… He would say that he was helped,” Mr. Mehta intervened.

The court said the Union has to now make “very serious and sincere efforts to stop forced conversions”, while scheduling the case for hearing on November 28.

Mr. 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.

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

The Solicitor General was referring to the Supreme Court’s 1997 judgment by a Constitution Bench in Rev. Stainislaus Versus State of Madhya Pradesh, which had held that the word “propagate” in Article 25 did not give “the right to convert another person to one’s own religion, but to transmit or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenets”.

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

“If a person purposely undertakes the conversion of another person to his religion, as distinguished from his effort to transmit or spread the tenets of his religion, that would impinge on the ‘freedom of conscience’ guaranteed to all the citizens of the country alike,” the 1977 judgment had reasoned.

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”.

Mr. Upadhyay has alleged “mass conversions” of socially and economically underprivileged people, particularly those belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Earlier this year, the Delhi High Court, hearing a petition by Mr. Upadhyay to frame laws to prohibit religious conversions by force or deception, had observed that, “First and foremost, conversion is not prohibited. It is a right of an individual to profess any religion, religion of his birth, or religion that he chooses to profess. That is the freedom our Constitution grants.”

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