The Karnataka government Thursday promulgated an ordinance to give effect to the anti-conversion bill on Thursday saying religious conversions are causing disturbances of ‘public order’ in the State. The hurry with which the government has moved to take the ordinance route, and by prioritizing this issue over other critical ones that the State is currently grappling with, only indicates that a conscious attempt is being made to polarize voters ahead of the crucial state elections.
The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill which was passed in the Legislative Assembly in December 2021 and was pending before the Legislative Council where the ruling BJP is one short of a majority, finally saw the light of the day with the cabinet clearing ordinance. The law prescribes a jail term of three to five years with a fine of Rs 25,000 for ‘forced’ conversion. Also ‘conversion’ of a minor, woman or an SC/ST person will attract a jail term of 3 to 10 years, with a Rs 50,000 fine. Mass conversions carry 3-10 years of jail, with a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh
The legislation prescribes penalties for religious conversions done through allurement, force or fraudulent means, but there are gaping holes in the law that could only render it vague and ineffective. For example, the onus is on persons who initiate conversion to prove that there are no inducements or force.
The law, which is in force in eight other States under different names, is basically in contradiction with Article 25 of the Constitution which guarantees citizens a fundamental right to profess, practice and propagate any religion subject to public order, mortality and health, and Article 26 that ensures the rights of religious communities to manage their own affairs. The ‘forced conversion’ clause highlights the inherent insecurity and unease of the establishment because it sees it through a political kaleidoscope.
Goa has lately seen attempts being made to polarize communities with the political discourse veering towards saints and random statements on forceful conversions. In current times, forced conversions appear to be a myth in view of the fact that that law in itself does not bar anyone from converting from one religion to another back and forth. There is always an ‘undo’ mechanism.
Religion is a very sensitive subject, especially in India, a country that is known for its diversity of religious faiths and beliefs hence there is every need to deal with it diligently and respectfully. ‘Forceful conversion’ should never be allowed and the law could hold ground in such cases. However, State governments cannot clamp down on the religious freedom of individuals and communities under the guise of this law by unnecessarily pushing the ‘forceful conversion’ clause. In pursuit of political agendas and goals, religion-based politics will play havoc in the long run.
The need of the moment is to exercise restraint, introspect and look within. The government of the day must learn to respect the choice of the religion of individual citizens, no matter which religion or faith each turns to.