India’s Freedom of Religion Acts or “anti-conversion” laws are state-level statutes that have been enacted to regulate religious conversions.
India is a nation that is home to a diversity of religious beliefs and practices. The Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of four major world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. According to reported 2011 census data, 79.80% of the population of India is Hindu, 14.23% Muslim, 2.30% Christian, 1.72% Sikh, 0.70% Buddhist, and 0.37% Jain.
Laws restricting religious conversions were originally introduced by Hindu princely states during the British Colonial period—mainly “during the latter half of the 1930s and 1940s. These states enacted the laws “in an attempt to preserve Hindu religious identity in the face of British missionaries. There were over a dozen princely states, including Kota, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Raigarh, Patna, Surguja, Udaipur, and Kalahandi,” that had such laws. Some of the laws from that period include the Raigarh State Conversion Act, 1936; the Surguja State Apostasy Act, 1942; and the Udaipur State Anti-Conversion Act, 1946.
Following India’s independence, the Parliament introduced a number of anti-conversion bills, but none were enacted. First, the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill was introduced in 1954, which sought to enforce “licensing of missionaries and the registration of conversion with government officials.”This bill failed to gather majority support in the lower house of Parliament and was rejected by its members. This was followed by the introduction of the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill in 1960, “which aimed at checking conversion of Hindus to ‘non-Indian religions’ which, as per the definition in the Bill, included Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism,” and the Freedom of Religion Bill in 1979, which sought “official curbs on inter-religious conversion.”These bills were also not passed by Parliament due to a lack of parliamentary support.
There is no doubt that large-scale conversions have been taking place across India, accelerating over the last 5 years led by evangelical groups from the West. The North East has been converted with Arunachal and Tripura is now targeted. Tribal belts across Odisha, Jharkhand, Gujarat, and MP have seen large-scale conversions for several years now.
The new phenomenon over the last 5 years has been a huge increase in evangelical conversions in Chennai and Tamil Nadu, clearly visible via the vehement advertising on particular channels on TV. Andhra Pradesh, particularly the interiors, Hyderabad, and the coastal regions, has been specifically targeted due to the red carpet laid by a now-deceased Chief Minister whose son-in-law is a Pastor with his own outfit. The visible impact across this region to any observer shows clearly that a huge amount of money has come in and that there is targeted conversion going on. Some evangelical groups have claimed that 9-12% of undivided AP has been converted, and have sought special benefits from the State (which has been reported in the media).
There is a very sophisticated operation in place by the evangelical groups, with a clear target for souls, marketing campaigns, mass prayer, and fraudulent healing meetings. Evidence is available in plenty of videos on YouTube, social media, press reports, and on the ground. Pastors have been openly tweeting about souls converted, and saving people from idol worshippers. Some pastors have tweeted with glee about converts reaching 60 million, declaring a target of 100 million, and have also requested financial support for this openly. Violence in some areas due to this has vitiated the atmosphere. The traditional institutions of both denominations are losing out to the new age evangelicals with their sophisticated marketing, money, and legion of supporters from the West. One can almost classify these groups as hyper-growth startups – with a cost per acquisition, a roadmap for acquiring followers, a fund-raising machine, and a gamified approach (with rewards and incentives) to “conquering” new markets.
Our Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, which includes the right of the individual to choose her religion. This is not in question and is a very important concept for a nation like ours. But this right is terribly constrained by religions, which severely punish apostasy. Our laws prohibit conversion due to inducement, allurement, undue influence, coercion, or use of supernatural threats. Every debate on TV misses this point -people argue on grounds of constitutional rights and abuse right wings groups who protest such conversion forgetting that these new-age evangelicals are clearly breaking the law! They go to the desperate, and prey on their insecurities by offering education for their children, medical services for the sick, and abuse existing religious practices and traditions.
DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.