The Right to Freedom of Religion is enshrined in the Constitution of India. Article 25 of the Constitution provides the Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion. Article 25(1) says that “all persons” are equally entitled to this freedom. However, the Article itself ensures that the right is conditional, and is subject to public order, morality, health and other provisions relating to fundamental rights. The term “all persons” implies that this right is extended to not only citizens of India, but to non-citizens as well. This becomes controversial when the right to propagate religion is extended to foreigners, considering the violent history of forced conversions and missionary activities in India, and the consequent political and social impact it has had on our society.
The Right to Propagate includes dissemination, promotion and transmission of religious beliefs among others. At the same time, it also allows “canvassing actively for, or persuading or even inducing conversion or adherence to, a particular religion”. In 1957, the SupremeCourt of India has also held that thisright allows everyone to propagate their religious beliefs and views for the ‘edification of others’1. In his seminal book, An Introduction to the Constitution of India, M.V. Pylee mentions that this is a unique feature in the Indian Constitution and the “the word
‘propagate’ does not find a place in any other constitution where it deals with religious freedom”. This implies that individuals have the right to peacefully propagate and convert others. At the same time, it does not include the right to forcible conversions, as it infringes upon the ‘freedom of conscience’ which is provided to all persons alike, and is illegal.
Constituent Assembly Debates
Interestingly, the members of Constituent Assembly had similar concerns and apprehensions about this provision. On 6 December 1948, the issue of conversions by Christian missionaries was raised while discussing the provisions of this Article. Loknath Misra, while raising objections to the inclusion of the term “propagate” in the Article, said that the secular state the Constituent Assembly was trying to set-up was already in a slippery-phase and had become a “device to by-pass the ancient culture of the land”. Further, he wanted the assembly to be cognizant of the hostility Islam had shown to the Hindu thought and the policy of peaceful penetration adopted by Christian missionaries while deliberating upon whether the term should be included or not. According to him, the generosity showed by Hindu culture was being misused. K. Santhanam, while pushing for the inclusion of the term “propagate” in Article 25, said that propagation is merely another form of ‘freedom of expression’ which should be granted to every individual. However, this argument was coupled with apprehension about mass conversion activities undertaken by the Christian missionaries, and the confidence that conversion by the way of deceit, fraud or coercion would be tackled separately. Tajimul Hussain and K.T. Shah also believed that the right to propagate could raise communal tensions in a country just divided on the basis of religion. Nevertheless, the term “propagate” was ultimately included in the provision.
Post-Independence Trajectory of the Right to Propagate Religion
In the first decade after Independence, two bills were tabled and discussed in the Lok Sabha that sought to curb conversions. In 1954, the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill was brought and six years later, the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill, 1960. Even though both bills had wide support, they were not passed by the Parliament due to the intervention of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who argued that these laws will not suppress this “evil methods” of gaining converts, but would become a tool to harass a large number of people.
PM Nehru said that “we permit, by our Constitution, not only freedom of conscience and belief but also proselytism”. Personally, he mentioned that he did not like proselytism, which according to him is rather opposed to the Indian outlook of live and let live. But he did not “want to come in other people’s ways provided they are not objectionable in some other sense”. However, these lofty ideals were soon replaced by immediate concerns about proselytization.
In 1967, Orissa became the first state to pass anti-conversion law. It was named ‘Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967’. This law was followed by Madhya Pradesh2in 1968, and Andhra Pradesh3in 1978. The laws passed by Orissa and Madhya Pradesh were first challenged in their respective High Courts, and then the matter was finally decided by the Supreme Court of India. The SC upheld the laws and stated that there is no fundamental right to conversion. In this case4, the SC clearly demarcated the distinction between the right to propagate religion and the right to convert. The former was guaranteed by Article 25, whereas the latter doesn’t enjoy any such protection, declared the SC.
Similar laws aimed to tackle forced or money induced conversions were brought in Chhattisgarh in 2000, and a couple of years later in Gujarat. In 2006, Madhya Pradesh brought a lawmandating people desiring to convert to provide a 30-day notice in advance, orface penalty. Following the trend,Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh brought in similarlegislations.In 2008, Rajasthan Government tried to bring in similar laws, but they never saw the light of the day. Tamil Nadu had passed a similar law, but it was eventually repealed. In total, there are 9 states where some kind of anti- conversion legislation has finally taken the shape of law. These include – Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.
Appraisal of the Political and Social impact
The Right to Propagate Religion has been a controversial part of the Constitution since its inception. It has posed a continuous challenge to every government, and has sometimes led to foreign policy challenges as well. Even with his liberal outlook, PM Nehru was wary of missionaries working in tribal and remote parts of the country. Christian missionary work in especially Nagaland became a point of contention between the Union Government and the United States.
The impact of unbridled and unchecked missionary activities has resulted in demographic changes in many states across India. One of the starkest examples of this phenomenon is the state of Nagaland. At the time of Independence, Nagaland was had numerous indigenous religions which formed the majority of the population. Within a few decades, 96 percent of the people there now identify themselves as Christians. Thisrapid demographic change has a major impact on indigenous traditions, culture, food habits, and languages. Here, the apprehension raised by Loknath Misra in the Constituent Assembly about the ‘policy of peaceful penetration’ adopted by Christian missionaries can be noticed. Further, this particular example again raises the question of whether non-citizens should be extended the right to propagate religion or not.
In recent years, a couple of major incidents of retaliation came to light. First, in 1999, an Australian missionary named Graham Staines along with his two sons were burnt to death in Odisha by Bajrang Dal members. The killers alleged that he had lured and forcibly converted many Hindus into believing Christianity. However, the Wadhwa Commission5found that even though some tribals had been baptised, no evidence of forced conversions was found. In 2005, his wife was awarded the Padma Shree for her welfare work in Odisha, which could also be seen as politically motivated by the UPA Government trying to establish its secular-liberal credentials. Second, in 2018, an American missionary tried to establish contact and preach Christianity to the self-isolated uncontacted tribe in North Sentinel Island in the Andamans. He was killed by the tribesmen after an intense encounter, and this re-ignited the debate around foreigners involved in missionary work in India.
With the rise of Hindutva-oriented forces, these issues have come to the forefront of political debate. Organisations like Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Hindu Makkal Katchi have conducted numerous Ghar-wapsi or re-conversion ceremonies of Muslims and Christians to Sikhism and Hinduism. Mass re-conversions have been reported in Punjab,
Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal. This has become the poll-plank for the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in every election. Further, laws are being brought in the states ruled by the BJP for countering the alleged forced marriages and conversions, which essentially make rules stricter for inter- religious marriages.
The Right to Propagate Religion remain as controversial as it was at the time of Independence. Individual liberty is challenged by the laws which discourage inter-religious marriage and voluntary conversion. In these polarised times, religious conversion for social mobility that Dalits and other marginalized communities choose as a refuge from the oppression is somehow side-lined, and has become more and more difficult with such laws. These emotive issues are continuously used by political parties and politicians for electoral gains, but these create tensions and enmity among different communities, which often results in sectarian violence. Samuel P. Huntington pointed in his classic, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, that societies like India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Sudan, which are united by either ideology or historical significance, but divided by civilization either come apart or face intense strain. This push and pull between different communities will persist as long as different communities continue to derive inspiration from warring civilizations which are rooted in contradictory values and tenets. Maybe this internal feud and strain is the price we have to pay to remain plural, secular and democratic.
1‘ Ratilal v. State of Bombay’ (1954 AIR 388).
2 Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968
3 Andhra Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978
4‘ Rev. Stainislaus vs. State of Madhya Pradesh’ (1977 SCR (2) 611).
5 Justice D.P. Wadhwa Commission of Inquiry Report (1999).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.