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Ban conversions to end controversies

Author: A Surya Prakash
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: January 6, 2015
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/edit/ban-conversions-to-end-controversies.html

Many stalwarts of the freedom movement and the Congress felt that religious conversions must be legally banned. But the idea fell through because of drafting difficulties

 Minister for Urban Development and Parliamentary Affairs M Venkaiah Naidu has done well to suggest an anti-conversion law in the light of the spate of conversions of citizens from other faiths into Hinduism. While the controversy has once again revived the debate on religious conversions, the Congress’s stiff opposition to an anti-conversion law seems inexplicable. Now that the Hindus are taking to religious propagation and conversion, how do we protect the interests of religious minorities, without such a national law?

 We need to take a peek at history in order to understand the various dimensions of the problem. The issue was debated threadbare in the Constituent Assembly and many stalwarts of the freedom movement and the Congress, who were members of this august Assembly, were of the view that religious conversions must be legally banned. Their initial efforts were aimed at incorporating this provision in the Constitution itself, but this idea fell through because of drafting difficulties.

 The following is the sequence of events: The issue dominated the proceedings of the Assembly when it debated minority rights and rights relating to religion, which were part of the chapter on Fundamental Rights. Following the insistence of Christian members of the Assembly that religious propagation was central to Christianity, the Advisory Committee of the Assembly headed by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel recommended that the Constitution declare that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience, and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion, subject to public order, morality or health, and to the other provisions in the fundamental rights chapter. But, this was subject to a raider in the second part which said “conversion from one religion to another, brought about by coercion or undue influence shall not be recognised by law”.

 When the Constituent Assembly debated these clauses on May 1, 1947, the first clause granting every citizen the right to ‘profess, practice and propagate’ religion was passed without much fuss. However, the second clause dealing with conversions ran into trouble when many Christian members of the Assembly, opposed the provision while non-Christian members said conversions must be banned.

 Among the Congress stalwarts who saw grave danger in allowing religious propagation without a clear legal embargo on conversions were Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi, Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, Purushottam Das Tandon and Sardar Patel. KM Munshi wanted the article granting the right to ‘propagate’ to also declare that conversions brought about by coercion, undue influence or fraud, as illegal. He also wanted the conversion of minors to be banned. Many members of the Assembly seconded KM Munshi’s proposal, but the Christian members including Frank Anthony and Rev James Joy Mohan Nichols Roy opposed the idea. They said any prohibition on conversion of minors would break up families, and hence should not be banned.

 These arguments shocked senior leaders of the Congress. Purushottam Das Tandon said he was astonished to hear the arguments of Christian members. He said “We Congressmen deem it very improper to convert from one religion to another or to take part in such activities”, yet a concession was made in order to take everyone along. Now, there was a fresh demand — that there be a right to convert minors as well. Pandit Algu Rai Shastri and Lala Jagat Narain too strongly favoured a clause banning conversions. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar demanded that the Constitution declare that no conversions would be allowed. Raghunath Vinayak Dhulekar and Loknath Mishra too strongly insisted on a provision to ban conversions. Loknath Mishra went so far as to say that the right to religious propagation in the chapter on Fundamental Rights is a ‘disgraceful article’ and ‘the blackest part of the Draft Constitution’.

 However, despite these strong sentiments, the provision pertaining to the ban on religious conversions was dropped because of insurmountable technical problems. Sardar Patel, who headed the Drafting Committee, reported back to the House on August 30, 1947 and said there was no difference of opinion in the House on the merits of the case that forcible conversion “should not be and cannot be recognised by law”.

 However, the issue was whether this could be incorporated in the chapter on Fundamental Rights. BR  Ambedkar also felt that this cannot be incorporated in the Constitution. Instead, he said ‘it would be better to leave the matter to the legislature’. He said there would be no bar on the legislature making any law to regulate this matter. Thus, while on Christian insistence, the Constitution gave every citizen the right to ‘propagate’ religion, it did not have a clause to prohibit religious conversions. The general run of the debate in the Constituent Assembly seemed to indicate that only Christians would exercise the right to ‘propagate’ religion and to convert others to their faith. But, some members warned against such a myopic understanding of a freewheeling constitutional provision. A couple of them even asked as to what would happen if the Hindus leveraged this provision.      

 Looking at recent developments when Hindus have begun a programme of ghar wapsi (Home Coming) whereby they are ‘re-converting’ Hindus who had earlier embraced Islam or Christianity, one is reminded of the prophetic warnings made by Ananthasayanam Ayyangar and L Krishnaswami Bharati. Ananthasayanam Ayyangar  warned that if religious conversion was not banned, “later on, it may attain enormous proportions”. Krishnaswami Bharathi went even further. He cautioned the religious minorities about the consequences of giving a carte blanche for religious propagation without prohibiting conversions. He said, “It is generally understood that the word ‘propagate’ is intended only for the Christian community, but it is up to other communities to emulate them, if they so chose to do”.

 Now that the Hindus, who constitute the majority in India, have begun to leverage Article 25(1) of the Constitution, which grants all citizens ‘the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion’, a law banning religious conversions is essential in order to protect the rights of religious minorities. All major political parties must put their heads together now to draft such a law. The initiative must be taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power at the Centre and in many major States in the country and the Congress, which is a strong proponent of minority rights.

 Leaders of the Congress would certainly benefit from the strong opinions expressed by the party’s stalwarts (some of whom even held the office of Congress president) in favour of a law to ban conversions. Those who resist this idea, will do grave disservice to the cause of religious minorities, because the right to propagate is no longer the exclusive right of the Christians or the Muslims.

(The accompanying visual is of Rashtriya Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party supporters protesting against religious conversions, in New Delhi on December 22, 2014. AP photo)
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