Last week the Bombay High Court at Goa quashed and set aside a North Goa District Magistrate's order banning a ministry of Catholic denomination at Sodiem-Siolim. The court held that the order violated a fundamental right guaranteed under sections 19, 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India and was passed without any material on record.
Freedom of religion has been a sensitive issue across India, and stray incidents in Goa have stoked controversy in recent years despite the Constitutional guarantee of equal entitlement to freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propagate religion. In the case in question, the State machinery, under the guise of Section 144 of the Code, appears to have impeded freedom of conscience and infringed upon the right to profess, practice and propagate religion.
The North Goa superintendent of Police, in his affidavit, pointed to the eight FIRs registered against the ministry between 2009 and 2022, citing the organising of "public gatherings to carry out religious activities and forceful conversions" in the name of prayer and healing.
Unfortunately, the record itself suggested that the Police had no material evidence to justify the claim of forced religious conversions and the fact that there was not even a single conviction against the ministry to the extent that, in one case, the Police had filed a closure report over misappreciation of material, was a testimony of the hidden agenda that was being played out.
Recently, a mob of around 50 people thrashed a person of the Catholic faith for putting up two posters informing about a retreat at the popular Divine Retreat Centre at Pota, Kerala. The victim was beaten black and blue on mere suspicion of religious conversion when he actually propagated a religious retreat. The person was escorted to the police station, but he refrained from filing a complaint.
Attacks, assaults and intimation against religious minorities have sporadically raised its head in a State that is known for its communal peace and harmony. Goa's people have been the architects of communal harmony in the State, and governments have always played a vital role. Religious harmony is only possible when there is tolerance and when every religion gets equal treatment.
Forceful religious conversions must be dealt with in accordance with the law. A bunch of individuals cannot sit in judgement over such sensitive matters and take the law into their hands. Also, the State machinery cannot run roughshod against a religious group because of its popularity or the sheer attention it is getting from outside the 'faith'. Hand-picking individuals and enforcing Section 144 to pre-empt a religious gathering is unfortunate and against the spirit of the law.
The government must tread a cautious path and strive to build bridges with all communities and faiths. The recent move of engaging leaders of various religions by Prime Minister Narendra Modi will go a long way in healing the wounds of the past. In Goa, actions that stoke communal animosity could have drastic consequences and create an unnecessary divide. Let peace prevail.