As per the Indian Constitution, the right to choose a religion of once’ choice is a fundamental right. The Supreme Court, however, in some of its key judgments, has stated that the right to ‘propagate’ religion does not include the ‘right to conversion’. A series of mass conversions of Muslim and Christian people to Hinduism by RSS-affiliated orgainsations like the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, however, has created a political storm in the higher reaches of Parliament. Although mass conversions are not problematic by themselves, unless there exists evidence pertaining to the use of force or fraud, such practices are usually political in nature and tend to create tensions among religious communities. The opposition bench in the Rajya Sabha, which holds a majority, have seen these exercises as yet another attempt at communal polarisation by Hindutva groups that share the BJP’s ideological space. The opposition was alarmed at the fact that the BJP’s sister groups were involved in efforts to lure economically poor Muslims and Christians towards Hindusim with state-conferred benefits such as ration cards. Despite a clamour for a statement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s on the matter, the BJP has not budged. Consequently, the opposition has blocked key pieces of legislation that were to be passed through Parliament during its winter session.
In an attempt to change the discourse, leaders from the BJP and it sister Sangh affiliates, have used this situation as an opportunity to demand a blanket ban on all forms of religious conversions. This deliberate attempt at changing the topic, however, misses a key point. Issues pertaining to the controversial events in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have nothing to do with mass religious conversion, which are rather par for course. Instead the issue pertains to communal politics in an environment of fear for religious minorities and discrimination on the grounds of religion in extending state-derived benefits. News reports have suggested that many slum dwellers who had converted have returned to Islam, saying they were either fraudulently induced into conversion or were promised some state-derived material benefits. However, those who want a ban on conversions on the basis of material inducements should instead concentrate on fighting poverty and deprivation. Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh already have strict anti-conversion laws. In Madhya Pradesh, for example, a change of religion requires the permission of state government authorities. In fact right-wing organisations affiliated to the BJP-led state government have discussed further punitive measures to deal with religious conversions. Measures include the dispossession of the convert’s land, standing crop and any other property. Clearly, in a secular and democratic framework as ours, such laws are best avoided.