In defence of conversions

By Cleofato A Coutinho
09 April 2015 20:42 IST

It was a dream of those who founded the constitution that India shall be a liberal democracy with at secular outlook. Despite the sole assurance of development, the country is now drowned in a debate that may have started a few centuries back and which has now come back to occupy the centre stage of India politics- ‘religious conversions’.  The debate has now come to the fore over reconversion programme ‘ghar wapsi’ which set target of reconverting one lakh Muslims and Christians to Hinduism every year by certain fringe elements.  

The issue of ‘ghar wapsi’ rocked the parliament as on the eve of Christmas 2014, the poor and down trodden from Agra were led to believe that they would be offered below poverty line cards only if they consent to convert. Certain groups also promised that the reconverts would also be allowed to choose castes for themselves making them entitled to the state benefits and largesse. These promises are possible only when there is state complicity or can be enforced only be show of force. Pushed to the wall, the parliamentary affairs minister suggested a national law to ban conversions as though the various state enactments on the issue were not enough.

Sometime back the RSS claimed they would bring about reconversion of the Goan Catholic community.  A few days back a speaker at their Hindu Jagaran Manch stated that the ‘believers’ are converting the Hindu brethren. The minority  Catholic community which takes a very belligerent stand on issues like attack of churches, ban on beef and other issues pertaining to culture seem to take a very cautious  path  on conversions. In the 1930s when the Suddhi movement was started in Goa by the Hindu Mahasabha it was certainly not state sponsored and not opposed by progressive forces of that time.

Conversion is not such a dirty aspect as made out to be. The constitution clearly accepts a citizen’s right ‘to propagate their religion’. In the constituent assembly there was a passionate debate spearheaded by F.R. Anthony over Christians’ right to propagate their religion which they considered as being fundamental to their religion. Though the majority community led by Purushottamdas Tandon opposed the move, after a heated debate the resolution to drop the word ‘propogate’ was lost.

It was K.M. Munshi who with clarity affirmed before the constituent assembly (December 3 to 6 1948) that propagation of their religion was an activity which was fundamental to the faith of the Christian community. In fact Munshi stated that even under the provision of freedom of speech and expression it was open to any religious community to persuade others to join their faith. Rohini Kumar Chaudhari who argued against ‘propagating’ religion stated “I have no objection to the propagation of any religion. If anyone thinks that his religion is something enabling and that it is his duty to ask others to follow that religion, he is welcome to do so….” T.T. Krishnaramachari was loud and clear. “It is perfectly open to the Hindus and the Arya Samajists to carry on their Suddhi propaganda as it is open to the Christians, the Muslims, the Jains and the Buddhists and to every other religion…”  The right to ‘propagate their religion’ would mean right to invite others to an understanding of their faith and as the great jurist H.M. Seervai puts it “successful propagation of religion would result in conversion”. If that is termed as conversion then that is not prohibited. 

The founding fathers understood the issue and had better clarity of thought in the mid twentieth century, then we have today.

We have signed the universal declaration of human rights 1948 and under Article 18(1) of the international covenant on civil and political rights 1966- “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching”. That necessarily permits one to choose a religion or belief including a right to renounce the religion of his ancestors or to adopt atheistic beliefs. Some may believe in ‘extra esslessium nulla salus’   (outside the church no salvation). There may be some who believe that change in religion liberate them from the burden of caste system. Some may change for material gifts like medicine and food. As a secular country we have to honour their choices!

Freedom of religion is all about conscience and choice of the citizen.  One may choose to certain  beliefs and have faith in a particular religion. A Catholic must be free to embrace Buddhism or any other faith and a Hindu or a Muslim must be free to embrace Christianity or any other religion in much the same way as any Indian is free to renounce his religion and take of path of atheism. It is a personal choice of conscience.   That choice made Dr. Ambedkar to embrace Buddhism with six lakh followers in 1956. He chose not to die as a Hindu. H.M. Seervai on the right to propagate claims “a person cannot choose if he does not know what choices are open to him”.

Certainly the choices must not have state complicity or an element of criminality or illegitimate coercion and violence. Relevant penal laws including laws of blasphemy are enough to deal with culprits.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Cleofato A Coutinho

Cleofato Almeida Coutinho is a senior lawyer and one of the constitutional expert in Goa. A member of Law Commission of Goa, he also teaches at Kare College of Law in Madgao.

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Previous Comments

If Conversion is true then why Christians are micro-minority? Even Conversion is not a Crime. Because they don’t get love, support and respect from their religion, they come to Christianity. BJP hates Christians and hence they brought Ghar Wapsi and Love Jihad to harass Christians. Conversion is the only for the namesake to justify Ghar Wapsi and Love Jihad.

- Mathew Dias, Goa | 10 th April 2015 15:34


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