Last week, the Uttar Pradesh government dispatched its Anti-Terror Squad to New Delhi to hunt down two Muslim preachers it accused of orchestrating large-scale religious conversions. A day after their arrest, the state government, led by the Hindutva hardliner Yogi Adityanath, said it would invoke the stringent National Security Act (NSA) against those involved in religious conversion.
On first look, it might seem bizarre for a government to apply legislation meant to deter actions that are “prejudicial to the defence of India” to the issue of religious conversion.
But India has a long history, not limited to Hindu nationalists, of viewing conversion as a security threat, having the potential to destabilize the nation. Since Christian missionaries were associated with colonial rule in India, many leading figures of the Indian national movement were, at the very least, suspicious of religious conversion.
This included Mahatma Gandhi. In an article in Young India dated April 23, 1931, Gandhi wrote: “Every nation considers its own faith to be as good as that of any other. Certainly the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people. India stands in no need of conversions from one faith to another.”
The invocation of conversion as an “anti-national” activity even featured in the Constituent Assembly debates. On a debate about conversions, R.V. Dhulekar, a member of the Assembly, warned that if “the numerical strength of the Hindus…gradually diminishes,” there might be once again calls for a “separate nation.”
Nevertheless, the Constituent Assembly firmly enshrined not just the “practice,” but also the “propagation” of religion (a demand of the Christian leaders of the time) as a fundamental right.
However, “postcolonial anxieties” about conversion were soon evident in a series of state government-sponsored reports, such as Niyogi Report of 1956, on the activities of Christian missionaries. These reports, according to the scholar Chad Bauman, framed conversion as a threat to the “the very survival and coherence of the Indian nation.”
Not surprisingly, Hindu nationalists have been at the forefront of portraying conversions as an existential threat. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a former prime minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, had called for a national debate on conversion as anti-Christian violence had surged in the states of Orissa and Gujarat.
The rise of the BJP to power at the national level in 1998 spurred a spate of anti-conversion legislation. Between 2002 and 2008, six states, including Gujarat, where India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was then chief minister, Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, enacted or amended their anti-conversion legislations.
There has been a marked shift in the discourse of Hindu nationalists, though, particularly in the framing of the main enemy.
Up to the 2000s, the anti-conversion zeal of Hindu nationalists was primarily directed against evangelizing Christians who offered money and social service to lure lower caste Hindus and tribal people to the Christian fold. Political scientist Sumit Sarkar attributed this to ideological pragmatism; there were few Christians in the country and targeting them drew little resistance, in terms of political fallout and violence, as compared to the more numerous Muslims. Many of the then coalition partners of the BJP were, in fact, dependent on Muslim votes.
The political calculations of the BJP have now changed; it enjoys a single party majority in Parliament, and its national expansion has induced an aggressive courting of Christians in Goa, Kerala and the Northeast. Thus, the focus of Hindu nationalists has shifted to combating the conversion threat posed by Muslims.
Over the last year, BJP governments in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have enacted anti-conversion laws, whose distinctive thrust lies in stemming conversion for the purpose of marriage.
These laws have been accompanied by high-pitched promotion of a conspiracy termed ‘love jihad’- a belief that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marrying them with the furtive aim of converting them to Islam. It is no matter that the central government itself informed Parliament that “no case of love jihad had been reported to any of the central agencies.” In fact, investigative agencies found no evidence for the phenomenon.
“Love jihad” is a potent political tool for consolidating the Hindus, who have largely embraced the conspiracy: a national poll found that 54 percent of all respondents believed in the veracity of love jihad.
There is little hope of repeal of these laws – often ironically labelled as “Freedom of Religion” laws – with a change in government.
The opposition to both religious conversions and inter-faith marriages runs deep in Indian society. Writing in the aftermath of the 1999 murder of Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two children, who were burnt to death by Hindu nationalists in Orissa, Sarkar had noted: “What is worrying is the confusion the question of Christian conversions can still evoke, even among well-intentioned and progressive people. There are very few who would not condemn the Staines murder, yet this could be accompanied by something like a sotto voce ‘but’ about conversions.”
The only instance when an anti-conversion law was repealed was in Tamil Nadu, where the late chief minister, J. Jayalalithaa withdrew the law a few years after passing it, citing opposition from minority groups, and following the defeat of the BJP in the 2004 national elections.
The Supreme Court has also skirted the contentious issue, even as the laws have got more draconian over time. The current crop of laws prescribe as many as 10 years jail for “unlawful conversion.” They have also shifted the burden of proof from the State to the convert to prove that the conversion is lawful. Advance notices to the state for the purpose of conversion have become more onerous, with Uttar Pradesh even requiring a District Magistrate inquiry to ascertain the validity of every act of conversion. This remarkable level of bureaucratization has had a chilling effect on freedom of religion, as a U.S. State Department Report documented.
The operative judgment of the Supreme Court in this regard, passed in 1977, held that “there is no fundamental right to convert another person to one’s own religion because if a person purposely undertakes the conversion of another person to his religion… that would impinge on the freedom of conscience guaranteed to all citizens.’
The Indian State has thoroughly inserted itself into the individual citizen’s choice of religion, in the name of maintaining public order and preventing deception.
In 1955, the then Congress government firmly discarded a private member bill aimed at restricting religious conversions. In his book “India as a Secular State,” author Donald Eugene Smith quotes Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru imploring members in the Parliament to reject the bill. While agreeing that “deception” and “coercion” used in religious conversion was objectionable, an “attempt to prevent that may well give rise to other forms of coercion,” Nehru argued.
Nehru’s prediction that anti-conversion laws would be more pernicious, and lead to more coercion, than the supposedly fraudulent acts of religious conversion they seek to rectify, has surely been realized today, as national security laws in Uttar Pradesh have come to officially police the boundaries separating different faiths.