By Dhiraj Nayyar
December 14, 2014
People convert to another religion because they are dissatisfied with their religion.
If the Constitution of India guarantees an individual's freedom of religion — and it is quite clear that it does as a fundamental right — how can political parties even contemplate a national debate on religious conversions or reconversions? Perhaps they are emboldened by laws passed by several states (both BJP and Congress-ruled) that prohibit conversions which are carried out with "inducements" or which are forced.
What exactly is an inducement? The promise of a particular God or of social uplift? Free education and healthcare? Cash reward? Whatever the inducement may be, why is it wrong? As long as there exists a level-playing field, where the practitioners of every religion are permitted to offer the same "inducements". It may be blasphemous to compare religion and the free market but consider this. Most people would be looking to convert to another religion because they are dissatisfied with one or more aspect of their religion. Like any rational consumer. They would weigh the other options available, both in philosophical and material terms. The Constitution assures very individual the freedom of choice.
When the individual or consumer (to use free market semantics) is supreme, it forces suppliers — in this case the promoters of various religions — to improve their offering. Competition may be good for all religions, helping them rid themselves of their more odorous aspects to gain greater acceptability or indeed to adopt the more positive aspects of competing religions. If Hinduism were to decisively reject the caste hierarchy, there would be a greater incentive for those who suffer because of it to stay on or even do a "gharwapsi". If more religions offered the message of pacifism like Buddhism does, they may find more voluntary converts.
In any case, the inducement factor is exaggerated. If competing religious groups, whether Christian missionaries, or Islamic maulvis or Hindu revivalists, were indeed offering the kind of material inducements that are being alleged, India would not have a poverty problem, or an illiteracy problem or a malnutrition problem. Presumably, people could have all of that and more simply by converting from one religion to another. The country would not need expensive welfare programmes to cater to the needs of the poorest.
As for forced conversions, they certainly are a problem if people are being asked to change their personal faith at gunpoint or at the threat of physical harm. But there is no need for a separate law to tackle this problem. Forced conversions quite simply violate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and those being forced can approach the courts for justice. If there is a threat of physical harm attached, it is possible to seek redress within the Indian Penal Code.
The most dangerous element in the practice of conversion/reconversion is the direct involvement of the state or actors linked to the state. That violates the secular nature of India's Constitution, which requires the state to keep an equal distance from all religions. The issue of conversion becomes problematic if some hardline BJP government gives official backing to gharwapsi or if a YSR Rajasekhara Reddy government backed conversions to Christianity, as some alleged it did, in Andhra Pradesh. Once the mighty state is involved, there is no level playing field and the definition of inducement changes. The promise of a state-provided service cannot be linked to religion in any way.
The fact is that faith and religion are matters of individual choice. Politicians do everyone a disservice by wading into such matters with loud debates and ill-advised laws. The Constitution already has the necessary safeguards.