Tuesday 29 Nov 2022

Need to go with a clear conscience on forced conversions


The Supreme Court touched upon a very sensitive issue on Monday. It observed that religious conversions through force, allurement or fraud may “ultimately affect the security of the nation, freedom of religion and the conscience of citizens." The top court directed the Centre to step in and clarify what steps it intends to take to curb compulsory or deceitful religious conversions.

In India, religious conversions, or rather, forced religious conversions, the way they are seen, have become a serious and contentious issue, a  sensitive topic that has time and again stirred religious sentiments and even provoked violence. The irony here is that there is a thin line between wilful and forced conversions which is blurred because the concept of “forced conversions” is primarily founded on brute majoritarian beliefs. The anti-conversion law is already effective in nine states including Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and the law prescribes penalties in varying forms — up to a 10-year jail term and a one lakh rupees fine.

We live in a nation where religious conversions have become such a dominant subject that it overrides many other pertinent issues, including the frequent defections that violate the very mandate of people and connects to the very heart of democracy. A parallel is drawn here because there is an allurement in both instances, the significant difference in defections being a betrayal of people's trust.

The biggest drawback of the existing anti-conversion laws has been that it leaves it to the whims, fancies and discretion of a few to take decisions based on perceptions. The laws to tackle conversions have inherent flaws and leave a grey area without defining what “gratification” for conversions would mean. Moreover, the States practising anti-conversion laws have failed to address concerns or justify the imposition of the law giving an impression that the intended purpose was mainly to intimidate minorities.

Furthermore, the definition of forced conversion becomes vague leaving religious sections at the mercy of governments. Doing charity and even distributing Christmas gifts could be seen as an allurement to convert. Goa may not have an active law in place, but in May this year, the crackdown on a Siolim-based Christian ministry raised questions over the sincerity and motives behind such actions. The pastor who was arrested on grounds of "forced conversions" was immediately granted bail by the court for lack of credible evidence to prove charges. In several other instances across India, most cases have fallen flat, and the conviction rate has been dismal.

For better understanding, the conversion subject revolves around a Hindu conversion into another religion, mainly Christianity. While the Centre prepares to tell the court how it is going to proceed against "forced conversions", there is a need to go with a clear conscience so that communal harmony and peace are maintained. The law cannot be used as a tool to target religions, and we only hope the Supreme Court directive is not seen as a licence to go for the kill.  Let peace prevail.

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