Published on 25 March, 2015
The operative word in ‘freedom of religion’ is ‘freedom’, and not ‘religion’. Religious conversion is thus a matter of individual choice guaranteed as a fundamental right under the Constitution, and not a collective right of any religious community to proselytise. What matters is not whether such conversions are necessary but whether the individual is allowed the freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of a religion of his or her choice provided under Article 25. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in calling for a debate on religious conversion, framed his argument poorly: “Is conversion necessary? Can social service not be performed in India without resorting to conversion?” Conversion may not be necessary for anyone but the person converting, but that is no reasoning at all against religious conversion. And, of course, social service can be performed without resorting to conversion.
Christian missionaries have combined propagation of religion with social service but unless cases of force or fraud are proven, there can be no objection to such a combination of religious and social work. True, as Mr. Singh said, it should be possible for members of all religions to prosper in India without promoting conversions. But this is not to say that promotion of religious conversions is in itself wrong. That there is no socio-economic need for religious conversion cannot be used to push through any restrictive anti-conversion laws. Existing laws are more than adequate to prevent forcible or fraudulent conversions.
Curiously, Mr. Singh used the possible changes in demographic profile and character of India that religious conversions would entail as an argument against religious conversion. Any restriction on religious conversion, whether on ground of social tension or changing demographics or national character, will amount to a serious violation of the fundamental right to freedom of religion.
What is important is that India survives as a secular nation, and not that it remains a country with an unchanged religious mix. As a senior Minister in the government, Mr. Singh should not have called upon the religious minorities to debate anti-conversion laws in the context he set out. Anti-conversion laws cannot be a means to protect religious communities, whether they are a minority or they constitute the majority. It is people who need legal protection and not religions. The threat to the idea of India is less from changes in demographic profile than from attempts to impose a rigid, unifying ‘national’ culture.
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