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Religious conversions are harming interfaith harmony in India

Amir Khan 

Religious conversions have always been an extremely contentious issue in India. Even before the Independence, various laws like the Raigarh State Conversion Act Of 1936, the Surguja State Apostasy Act Of 1942, and the Udaipur State Anti-Conversion Act, of 1946 existed to outlaw religious conversion. However, after India declared itself to be a democratic republic in the Constitution of 1950, Religious Freedom was included as a Fundamental Right. This was a revolutionary step from the standards of that time when the sibling dominion of Pakistan had decided to establish a theocratic state with Islam as the state religion. It was no mean achievement that a nation where more than four-fifths of the population was Hindu had adopted a secular polity without a state religion. 

But over the years, freedom of religion was interpreted to mean freedom to convert and get converted and as the years passed, the same Constitutional right was also at times misused to unlawfully convert people from other faiths by inducement or misrepresentation, leading to heightened suspicions between the communities. 

Because of these developments after 1947, the anti-conversion laws are today in force in 9 States, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. These laws prohibit conversions through “forcible” or “fraudulent” means, or by “allurement” or “inducement” and impose enhanced penal measures for the conversion of SCs, STs, women, and minors. Illegal conversions are being handled under ordinary criminal law in many other states. 

India is a diverse country with a rich cultural heritage. Besides four Indic religions that were born here- Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism – India has a massive population of Muslims and Christians. Other minority faith groups in India include Jews, Parisis, Bhai’s, and other numerous tribal communities practicing their unique faiths. Religion plays an important role in the personal and collective life of Indians and these different religious groups have by and large lived in harmony for centuries. 

But in recent years as the communities have become more conscious of their identities and as a fresh appraisal of the historical events is being done, the movement to counter the conversions is gathering steam. Also, there have been instances where religious conversions have been used as a tool for political gains. In some cases, people have been lured into converting to another religion with promises of jobs, education, and other benefits. This has led to tensions between different religious communities, as some people see it as a threat to their religion. Such tensions have been seen frequently in U.P, Orissa, and Northeastern States with large tribal populations, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, and Kerala, 

While the conflict related to illegal conversions has been witnessed between Hindus and Muslims, Muslims and Christians, Hindus and Christians, Sikhs and Christians, and all other possible permutations and combinations of the proselytizing faiths, due to the sheer size of the populations, the practice of illegal conversion has harmed the Hindu and Muslim relations the most. 

The biggest setback to Hindu-Muslim relationships caused by illegal conversions is the growing perception of love jihad where it is often alleged that Hindu women are being knowingly pushed into romantic relationships by Muslim youth to convert them to Islam. While there have been frequent claims from Muslim activists that there is no such thing as love jihad and that these are just ordinary interfaith relationships, Hindu activists have been citing evidence that Hindu women are invariably compelled to convert to Islam. The data on love jihad continues to be elusive although some researchers like Arnab Kumar Banerjee have claimed that between 2015 and 2019 a dataset shows Hindu Dalit girls are the biggest victims of love jihad followed by Muslim girls who got converted to Hinduism. It is obvious that while the numbers on which such perceptions are based may be quite low, the insecurity around conversions in India is at an all-time high. Social media amplifies every incident that is reported creating a narrative of hate between various communities.

In a petition filed by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, the Supreme Court of India remarked recently that religious conversions using force, allurement or fraud will impact the national security situation, and the center was directed to curb such conversions. However, the experience tells us that it is not the state and the law-enforcing agencies alone that can stop illegal conversions. If inter-faith harmony is to be maintained it is the faith leaders and civil society that has to take a stand against religious conversions and stop all missionary activity in the true spirit of universal brotherhood. 

There have been many incidents in the past where Muslim preachers in India have publicly converted people from other faiths and the act of converting others is given a lot of social credit. No one can deny that there is an implicit understanding within the community that Islam is the only true faith and it is the duty on every Muslim to invite others to Islam. But this mentality is in conflict with the true spirit of Islam and the Quranic notion of ‘to you your faith and to me mine (109:6). Even if one agrees that there was an obligation on Muslims to convert others in the initial phases of Islam, the progressive Islamic scholars from across the world are today asserting that this obligation to convert has long ceased to exist. With more than 2 Billion Muslims in the world now, the community is already large enough and if anyone wants to enter the fold of Islam today let it be by inspiration from the good conduct of Muslims rather than by indoctrination and missionary action. 

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It is high time that respected religious scholars, faith leaders, preachers, Imams, spiritual leaders, religious influencers, political leaders, writers, and authors denounce missionary activities and discourage any such elements who are attempting to convert others. No mosque or spiritual place should be allowed to be used to convert others as the very act of compelling someone to renounce one faith and announce the superiority of one faith over another is unwarranted. It is only when we truly accept that all religions lead to the same Absolute truth and that all faiths are equal, can we create a society where everyone is feeling heard and respected. 

(Amir Khan is a chef and a history buff from Hauz Khas, Delhi. Views are personal)

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