An Indian activist has made a request for the country’s Supreme Court to direct the federal (central) government to implement a nationwide anti-conversion law.
Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay made his submission to the court – known as a petition – with the argument that religious conversions coerced using force, fraud or allurement are “a nationwide problem”.
The court on 23 September asked the federal government to submit a response to the petition by 14 November.
Upadhyay said that the practice of seeking converts through “intimidation, threatening, deceivingly luring through gifts and monetary benefits” was widespread.
He argued that federal and state governments “have not taken stringent steps to stop this menace”, adding, “The injury caused to the citizens is extremely large because there is not even one district which is free of religious conversion by ‘hook and crook’.”
At present there are 11 Indian states with anti-conversion laws that criminalise seeking converts through force, fraud or allurement. These are often misused by extremists as a means of intimidating or an excuse for attacking Christians and Muslims.
Lack of evidence
A previous petition to the Supreme Court by Upadhyay for action to be taken against religious conversion failed, as the court held that persons above the age of 18 had the right to choose their own religion.
A similar petition from Upadhyay in the Delhi High Court was dismissed for lack of evidence earlier this year.
On that occasion the bench of two High Court judges asked, “What is the material on record? There is nothing, no documentation, not one instance given by you. ... Where are the statistics? How many conversions happened? Who is converted? You say mass conversion is happening, where is the number?”
Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva also gave his opinion that “conversion is not prohibited in law”, and that the “right to choose and profess any religion” is “a constitutional right”.
India’s higher courts have a consistent recent record of upholding the rights of Christians. In March 2022 the Supreme Court rejected a request to monitor the activities of Indian evangelists, declaring to the petitioners, “You are actually disturbing the harmony with these kinds of petitions.”
In September the court responded to a petition from Christian groups for a directive to end anti-Christian “hate speech” and attacks on places of worship by ordering eight Indian states to supply information about the persecution of Christians.
Anti-conversion legislation does have a legitimate purpose – to prohibit forcing or coercing vulnerable individuals or groups to change their religion – but extremists appear to see no difference between such underhand activities and genuine evangelism, missionary work and sharing of faith.
Christians – and Muslims – are vulnerable to false accusations.
Furthermore, the definition of “allurement” in the anti-conversion laws of Karnataka and Gujarat, for example, includes – in the wording of the Gujarat law – the promise of “divine blessings”. If applied rigorously such wording criminalises the Gospel message that repentance and faith in Christ lead to forgiveness of sin and everlasting life.
Judges and other legal experts have argued that anti-conversion laws are unconstitutional, as Article 25 of the Indian constitution guarantees the freedom to “profess, practise and propagate religion”.
Such laws can be revoked. An anti-conversion bill passed by the state of Tamil Nadu in 2002 was scrapped two years later after the ruling party at that time was accused of targeting Christians and Muslims.
In March 2021 the federal government said that there were no plans to implement a nationwide anti-conversion law.