India: Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967 is Anti-Minority

My religious conversion is not inspired by any material motive. This is hardly anything I cannot achieve even while remaining an Untouchable. There is no other feeling than that of a spiritual feeling underlying my religious conversion. Hinduism does not appeal to my conscience. My self-respect cannot assimilate Hinduism. In your case change of religion is imperative for worldly as well as spiritual ends. Do not care for the opinion of those who foolishly ridicule the idea of conversion for material ends. Why should you live under the fold of that religion which has deprived you of honor, money, food and shelter?”

(Sri Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the architect of Indian Constitution who converted himself to Buddhism from Hinduism on 14th October, 1956)

Changing religious belief and practices is as old as Jainism and Buddhism in India. In protest of caste-based exploitation and exclusion by the so-called upper castes and in search of dignity, mostly the dalits have been leaving Hinduism to join Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism and Christianity. ‘Conversion’ can be considered a form of rebellion against domination, bondage, social exclusion by Brahmanism – the dominant sect of Hinduism. The most articulate expression of this dejection (of Hinduism) is found in Ambedkar's own analyses that holds overthrowing of 'Hindu' religious ideological hegemony as a necessary condition for the liberation of Dalits’ (Omvedt, 1994).

Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights says - Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance. India is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which includes the right to choose a religion or belief, the protection from coercion which might impair the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief, and the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs. Article 25 (Clause -1) of Indian Constitution provides - all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.

The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act (OFRA) legislated in 1967 meant to prevent ‘forcible conversion’ says “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion”.  Definitions of “force” and “inducement” in the Orissa law provide an example of the overbreadth in the way anti-conversion laws are interpreted. In the Orissa act, “force” is defined as “a show of force or a threat for injury of any kind including threat of divine displeasure or social excommunication”.  “Inducement” threatens the philanthropic or charitable activity of many religious groups.

The inclusion of the “threat of divine displeasure” is not only vague but also prohibits the expression of many religious teachings. Further, “inducement” in the Orissa law is defined as “the offer of any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind and shall also include the grant of any benefit, either pecuniary or otherwise.”  Giving to someone of another faith out of a desire to fulfill religious obligations toward the poor or even simple acts of kindness toward someone of another faith, can be considered coercive under these definitions, and thus interpreted as violations of the anti-conversion laws. Freedom of conscience is a natural right that cannot be denied by any external entity. A state cannot control a person’s internal conscientious choice of religion, only the circumstances under which that choice is made. (Ref.  Submission of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty before UNHRC during Universal Periodic Review on 20 November 2007). Also to add, in a society ridden with caste and communal politics and conflicts it always makes the marginalized communities more vulnerable, if they open their intention for change which is taken as a rebel against the domination of upper caste. It also hinders their right to profess, practice and propagate religion freely as per their conscience.

Proponents of anti-conversion laws cite the alleged use of violent or coercive tactics in conversion efforts to justify the anti-conversion laws. There has been little to no documentation of such activity; however, even if there were, there are civil and legal remedies to address such problems that do not entail stifling freedom of conscience. For example, there are already laws in force against assault, false imprisonment, blackmail, defamation, and fraud. The anti-conversion laws only target ideas being preached or otherwise persuasively shared, not the forced imposition of religion. (Ref.  Submission of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty before UNHRC during Universal Periodic Review on 20 November 2007).

Ms. Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief,  presented her report in the Tenth Session of UNHRC on 26 January 2009 observes ‘There is a risk that “Freedom of Religion Acts” may become a tool in the hands of those who wish to use religion for vested interests or to persecute individuals on the ground of their religion or belief. While persecution, violence or discrimination based on religion or belief need to be sanctioned by law, the Special Rapporteur would like to caution against excessive or vague legislation on religious issues which could create tensions and problems instead of solving them’.

The Special Rapporteur  recommends ‘The laws and bills on religious conversion in several Indian states should be reconsidered since they raise serious human rights concerns, in particular due to the use of discriminatory provisions and vague or overbroad terminology. A public debate on the necessity of such laws, more information on their implementation and safeguards to avoid abuse of these laws seem vital to prevent further vilification of certain religious communities. The Special Rapporteur is concerned that such legislation might be perceived as giving some moral standing to those who wish to stir up mob violence. She would like to emphasize that the right to adopt a religion of one’s choice, to change or to maintain a religion is a core element of the right to freedom of religion or belief and may not be limited in any way by the State. She also reiterates that peaceful missionary activities and other forms of propagation of religion are part of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief, which may be limited only under restrictive conditions’.

The National Commission for Minorities of  India (as quoted by Ms.Asma Jahangir ) also has expressed its profound concern over the attempt in such state laws on religious conversion to interfere with the basic right to freedom of religion or belief. Provisions relating to notice and selective enquiry will allow state functionaries to interfere in matters of personal life and religious beliefs, thus impinging on freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion guaranteed by article 25 of the Constitution.

Before conclude, let us suppose ‘conversion’ is a crime. Then, the ‘person’ who was converted is a ‘victim’ – and she/he is the rightful individual to file complaints against the 'crime-committed'. But, there is no single instance in Kandhamal that a converted Christain person has lodged any complaints anywhere against it? More to mention, the Hindu fundamentalists, those vociferously and violently raise ‘conversion’ as ‘the problem’, have attacked and ruined these poor ‘victims’.

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Date: 24/04/2011




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