Are the Doors Closing in India?

There are several nations and societies in the world where public Christian witness is prohibited under law, and conversion from one religion to another is considered a legal offense leading to imprisonment and heavy punishment. For a Muslim to publicly accept another religion is almost an impossibility in several Islamic countries.

An encouraging aspect of the work of world evangelization today is that India, with a population greater than the combined population of all of Latin America and of Africa, is still wide open for Christian witness. Yet, there are strong forces at work in certain parts of India to drastically curb the work of Christian missions by making official laws that will restrict the activities of “proselytization.”

Two Indian states, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, in 1967 and 1968 passed laws relating to conversion: “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 allurement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet such conversion.” In both states the wording of the law is identical, except that in one law the word “inducement” is substituted for “allurement.” Very recently a third state, Arunachal Pradesh, in sensitive northeast India, passed a bill that is essentially the same as the others. It is now awaiting the signature of the president of India. The only significant modification in this third case is the substitution of “from one religious faith to another” by “from indigenous faiths” and an enumeration of the specific indigenous faiths of the state.

Two serious questions are being raised by these laws, which have been debated widely and contested in judicial courts. They are: whether these acts violate the fundamental right of religious freedom guaranteed in the Indian Constitution to all citizens; and whether state legislatures have the right to enact them, as the subject matter they deal with falls within the scope of the powers of the Centre and not the states. The Madhya Pradesh High Court maintained the constitutionality of the law and the competence of the state to make the law. But the Orissa High Court in a careful study of the case declared the law to be ultra vires the Indian Constitution and directed the government not to give effect to the law.

Appeal from both cases came to the Supreme Court of India, and in January, 1977, it reversed the decision of the Orissa High Court and declared that these acts do not contravene the fundamental freedom of religion guaranteed in the Constitution, because they deal with only “forceful conversions.” Article 25(1) of the Constitution reads, “Subject to public order, morality and health and to other provisions of this part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.”

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The question is whether the freedom to “propagate” one’s religion does not imply the freedom to convert a person to that religion. But the Supreme Court defined the word “propagate” as “to transmit or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenets” or exhibit one’s beliefs “for the edification of others” as the Bombay High Court once put it. It was said further that “freedom of conscience” is guaranteed to every citizen and not just to the followers of any one religion. Hence no person has a fundamental right to convert someone to his own religion, though he is free to spread the tenets of his religion. Freedom of religion applies to all religions alike, and it is properly enjoyed only if a person exercises his freedom “in a manner commensurate with the like freedom of persons following the other religions.”

The concern about the work of Christian missions gave rise to these state laws; yet any reference to conversion of people to Christianity is carefully avoided. No doubt Christians as well as others outrightly condemn any attempt to convert by “force, allurement or fraud,” since such conversions are contrary to biblical teachings. But the wording of the law might lead to certain serious misuse of it. Here are some of the real problems involved.

1. As the Orissa High Court pointed out, the definition of the term “allurement” or “inducement” is vague. These terms are defined in the acts themselves 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.” The Christian community is engaged in a wide range of social services in the country, second only to that of the government. The education, medical, and socio-economic activities of the church are inseparable from the practice and proclamation of the Gospel. Can these services, which are in many cases free, be interpreted as “inducements”?

2. The definition of the word “force” includes “threat of divine displeasure.” The gospel message warns of divine judgment and punishment of hell for those who choose to continue to live in sin. Could preaching of this be interpreted as using “force” to encourage conversion?

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3. The acts require that when conversion takes place, the convert must give legal intimation of his conversion to the District Magistrate, solemnly declaring that he accepted his new religion solely on the basis of his conviction and free will. But it can be argued that the convert’s declaration itself is a result of the use of “force” or “allurement.” Thus the veracity of his declaration will have to be proved before a court leading to litigation.

4. It is difficult to understand the argument of the Supreme Court that, though a person has the fundamental right to propagate his religion by the exposition of its tenets, he has no right to encourage conversion or a change of mind in a person, as this would impinge upon the freedom of religion of that person. What is the purpose of a person faithfully propagating his religion unless he conscientiously recommends it to others? Can a person make genuine efforts to “transmit or spread one’s religion” without being understood by others to “attempt to convert” or “abet” conversion?

5. The acts seem to assume that “Adiwasis and persons belonging to backward classes,” “tribal communities,” and people of “illiteracy and poverty,” are more readily subject to being converted to other religions by force and allurement, and they need to be protected from exploitation of their simplicity and unsophistication. To consider such people incapable of making a conscious choice as to their religious beliefs is unfortunate. The acts seem to deny these Indian citizens their fundamental “freedom of conscience,” if genuine conversions are explained away as the result of exploitation of their simplicity and ignorance.

These acts pose no problem for the work of Christian missions in India. Unfortunately, though, their wording is broad and vague, and mischievous local officials can misuse the law to harass the converts and those engaged in evangelistic work.

The acts mention “the ceremony necessary for such conversions,” which is the clearest outward evidence of conversion. Water baptism of a convert in India invariably means not only a radical change in his socio-cultural life and personal identity, but also the transference of his ties and loyalty from one community to another. This often results in a considerable degree of disruption in his family and community life. These new acts, which take for granted the constitutional freedom of all people to propagate their religion, but seek to restrict the conversions, as evidenced in public ceremony, once again may bring to focus one controversial issue long debated in Asia, that is, water baptism in relation to a person’s conversion and qualification for church membership.

Saphir P. Athyal is principal of Union Biblical Seminary, Yeotmal, India.

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