Supreme Court on charity and conversion: The answer may lie in the words of Mahatma Gandhi

Source: The post is based on the article “Supreme Court on charity and conversion: The answer may lie in the words of Mahatma Gandhi” published in The Indian Express on 10th December 2022. 

Syllabus: GS2- Significant provisions of constitution. GS1- Communalism and secularism 

Relevance: Issues related to religion 

News: The article explains the issue of religious conversion. It also explains the viewpoint of various ruling dispensations and organs of government on this issue. 

What do the UDHR and the constitution say about religious conversion? 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 provides for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and to manifest his religion or belief. 

The Constitution of India recognised the fundamental right to propagate, profess and practice one’s religion. 

What has been the view of the apex court on this matter? 

In two cases decided in 1954, the apex court observed that Article 25 covered every individual’s right to propagate his religious views for the edification of others.  

It is the propagation of belief that is protected, no matter whether the propagation takes place in a church or monastery, or in a temple or parlour meeting. 

What was the policy of rulers in the pre-independence era? 

The British rulers of India, who were never shy of introducing measures to facilitate the conversion of others to their faith. They enacted in 1866 a Native Converts Marriage Dissolution Act to provide the facility of divorce to married Indians who converted to Christianity and were thereupon deserted by their non-converting spouses.  

Several princely states of the pre-Independence era had enforced anti-conversion laws. 

What is the policy on religious conversion in the post-independence era? 

After Independence, the Law Commission of India recommended that Native Converts Marriage Dissolution Act be revised to make it a general law on the effect of post-marriage change of religion. The government did not take any action on it. It was eventually dropped from the statute book by the Repealing and Amending Act of 2017. 

During 1967-68, state legislatures in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh enacted anti-conversion laws. 

These were challenged in SC court in Rev. Stanislaus, 1977 case. It held that Article 25 granted not the right to convert another person to one’s own religion but only to transmit and spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenets. 

The Constitution Bench decision inspired some other states to enact similar laws. Arunachal Pradesh passed the Freedom of Religion Act 1978 

Today there are such laws in about half of our states. Some of these have been either newly enacted or made more stringent. All of them prohibit converting people from one to another religion without their free will. 

What is the way forward on religious conversion? 

India should follow the advice of Mahatma Gandhi on this matter. He once said that “all faiths are equally true though equally imperfect”. Instead of converting others to one’s own faith, our innermost prayer should be that a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim and a Christian a better Christian”. 

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