History of religious conversions in this country dates back to more than 400 years, if not less. While it is believed that many of these conversions have been voluntary, it is also many of these conversions have been done forcefully. There is no central anti-conversion law. The states that have enacted anti-conversion laws make religious conversion by force or allurement a punishable offence. Goa, which has seen minority and majority communities co-existing in harmony for centuries, does it need an anti-conversion law?
“This issue of law for conversions is not necessary. To enact any such law, there has to be an empirical study on how many conversions take place every year? How many of them are actually forced conversions? What is the reason? No such study has been done. So, on what basis is this law based?” said Fr Mousinho Athaide, former professor of Philosophy and Theology at Pilar and Rachol Seminaries.
He further said that there is a constitutional right of freedom to express, practice and to propagate. If the State wishes to interfere in matters of conscience, it is simply entering into a ground which is not its own.
“I remember when Mahatma Gandhi used to say that the government which governs the least is the best. But this government wishes to legislate almost everything,” he said.
Adv Yatish Naik, spokesperson of BJP responding to the charges of interference in matter of faith, said that whatever the Article 25 of Indian Constitution states, prevails upon this country and is supreme.
“The question is about forced conversions. There is no law to deal with it directly. A State has to be governed in a good way. In view of that, if a law is necessitated, then the necessity of the law has to be appreciated, notwithstanding supremacy of the Constitution. There is no direct law that deals directly with the issue of forced conversions,” Naik said.
No empirical data
Adv Shriniwas Khalap, Secretary of Congress Party when asked about whether there is enough empirical data to show the need for bringing anti-conversion law, said that the ruling party should explain how suddenly the necessity of this law arose.
“In our country, there have been anti-conversion laws in the past. In fact if you go to the anti-conversion law history in our country, Madhya Pradesh was one of the first States to bring the anti-conversion law which was under the Congress government. Again, we know all this is limited to forced conversions. But, how come all of a sudden after the elections, the CM felt that there is a need for such a law. This should be clarified by the government first,” Adv Khalap said.
If there is any such data, then it should be put before the public and there should be debate and discussion regarding if the law is required, why it is required, what is required and how it can be done, he added.
Responding to remarks on the necessity of law against forced conversions as it is a threat to the society, Adv Radharao Gracias, lawyer and political activist said that BJP has been in power at the Centre for the last eight years.
“Political parties use all kinds of tactics to come to power, including polarisation , which the BJP has been doing. But after some time, you have to show economic advancement and improvement in the economic situation of the people. But these laws are being mooted because the government has failed to deliver on the economic front. So, they are now trying to further polarise the people,” he said.
Citing Goa’s example, Adv Gracias said that before the Assembly elections, the CM announced that the government will reconstruct the temples demolished in Portuguese regime and set aside Rs 20 cr for it. Now there is an issue of Dominic and Joan which is emerging. Goa Police arrested the evangelical couple, Dominic D' Souza and his wife Joan D' Souza, for allegedly luring people into Christianity by offering money or promising to cure their ailments. The police arrested the couple based on two separate complaints.
They were booked under section 153 A, ‘promoting enmity on the ground of religion’, section 295 A, ‘deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings’ and sections 3 and 4 of Drugs & Magic Remedies Act 1954.
“There is a pattern. To me it appears that the BJP has failed to deliver on the economic development front, therefore polarising further. This law is directed towards Christians because maximum conversions in Goa have been to Christianity. There is hardly any conversion to Islam. Regarding availability of data, in the 1951 census, the percentage of Christians to the general population was 2.3 per cent. In 2011 it was still 2.3 per cent. So, where is the conversion? There is no data to show conversion. What the BJP is trying to do is go on polarising people so that they can capitalise on it,” Adv Gracias alleged.
He also questioned the motive of the State interfering in matters of people’s faith.
“Whether the entire population is Muslim, Hindus or Christians is of no direct relevance for the State government. This seems to be the only instance that a community with 80 percent population is scared of a community with only 16 per cent population. This is absurd,” he said.
Adv Gracias further added that this was not an attempt to prevent forcible conversion but a forcible attempt to prevent conversion.
“If there is conversion happening, then the government should identify the reasons for it. A church is open for everyone to come and pray. Same is the case with temples and mosques. Dominic opened 5 Pillars Church in Siolim. All kinds of people come there and listen to the preaching. Where is forcible conversion here? Was anyone forcibly brought to the church? No. So, what was the basis of police action against him? False promises i n this country are nothing new. Politicians are masters in it. But are they being prosecuted?” asked seemingly agitated Adv Gracias.
Adv Yatish Naik responded by saying that the action was taken on the basis of a complaint filed in the police station.
“There were complaints against the accused, which precipitated into FIR. BJP at the Centre under PM Modi is in its second term. As far as Goa is concerned, it is the third consecutive term for the party. Few days back the central government released a report showing India is the prime investment destination of the world. Economy is an area where a lot of attention is being paid, despite several challenges at national and State level,” he said.
Adv Naik also clarified that the government might introduce an anti-conversion law. “The government may introduce this law, if it so feels, considering all legal parameters. But one thing I can tell you, the Constitution has said very clearly in Article 25. That is supreme. Forced conversions are not supported by the Constitution.”
Adv Gracias said that the problem is not the law but its enforcement. “Everybody knows how a police officer blindly perpetrates excesses,” he said.
A senior RSS functionary Rajeshwar Singh in the year 2020 said that “RSS will make India free of Christians and Muslims by year 2021”. Is this an isolated statement or this particular narrative being felt in the society?
“I am aware of RSS and BJP ideology. They are very studious and they know what their foundations are. This statement is the philosophy of RSS and allied organisations of the Sangh Parivar. Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan. One nation, one language and one law. This is the core of the whole issue,” Fr Athaide said.
In places, people have converted from one faith to another in the backdrop of issues like poverty and deprivation on their own free will because the current system is not working, or people are influenced by a preacher. Is this movement happening because of societal imbalance?
“We have had conversions in our country. Conversion means change of heart. Dr Bhimrao (Babasaheb) Ambedkar is the biggest example of real conversion. He studied all the religions and finally concluded that the religion he was born into (Hinduism) had to be changed and after studying all the religions, this was the best one for me (Buddhism). He explained everything to his followers who agreed with him and embraced Buddhism,” Adv Khalap said.
Narrating his own experience from visiting places known for religious conversions, the Congress spokesperson said that he once visited Mayurbhanj district (where Graham Stains and his little sons were murdered) in Odisha.
“There I found that poverty was absolute but the region was so rich. I have seen mountains of granite. At the same time people don’t have anything. This is because of the social system. One particular corporate group has captured all the resources of the State. Majority of the people don’t have anything to eat. In such a situation, if someone comes to them and offers education, food and medicine why will they not accept it? However there is a difference. If someone resorts to coercion and cheating, that is unacceptable,” he said.
When asked about the reasons for charges of coercion and inducement being levelled and what happens when option of conversion is given, Fr Athaide said that as far as he was concerned, he would rather tell the “Hindus to become better Hindus “ “Muslims to become better Muslims” or “Christians to become better Christians”.
“But if suppose someone, after hearing me, wants to become a Christian, who am I to prevent? Who is the government to prevent? BJP is violating the ethos of our nation. If any anti-conversion law is required, it is for preventing political conversions,” he said.
Rejecting the charges made by Fr Athaide, Adv Naik said that Article 25 is very clear about allowing people to practice and propagate any religion. “There should not be any case of worry with constitutional guarantees in place. But forced conversion is outside the scope of Article 25. In case of political conversions, the elected representatives have to get re-elected. In a democracy, people ultimately decide the fate of elected representatives,” he said.
Anti-conversion law in five States
Five of India’s States have anti-conversion laws. All these States found it necessary to have this law because they found gaps in the legislation. So, is it unjustified to have such a law across the country?
“Our Indian Constitution is based on the word – balance. Whatever the government does, it should be balanced with fundamental rights of people on one side and the State action on the other side. If that balance is lost, then the law will not pass the test of the Constitution. If we look at the proposed provisions of Maharashtra’s law and compare it with that of Madhya Pradesh, when the MP Assembly felt there was a problem and found the solution in the form of the Act. But they also balanced it by ensuring that the provisions weren’t too severe,” Adv Khalap said.
“Maharashtra has introduced anti-superstition Act instead of anti-conversion law. They felt that If there is an element of cheating in conversion or attempts to misappropriate that person’s property by way of any medical remedy, then this is wrong,” the senior advocate said.
He suggested that the Goa government should consider the Magical Remedies Act instead of anti-conversion law.
Adv Naik said that Magical Remedies Act is one angle that allows dealing with one set of offences. “But, the moot question is, there has to be a law to deal with forced conversions,” he reiterated.
Adv Gracias said that everything is done to protect the interests of the party in power. “Parties in power bring in legislation that suit them politically and not for public good. Conversion to me should be the least of all issues. These States and the country as a whole should pay attention to other issues. As per an answer given on December 14, 2021 in the Lok Sabha, nearly 9 lakh people (8.84 lakh) have renounced Indian citizenship in the last seven years.”
He said that after the Narendra Modi government came to power, how so many Indians, mostly from the majority community, have renounced Indian citizenship. They have gone and settled in Christian countries like the USA, UK, Canada or Australia. Why are they doing it? This is where the BJP should be concerned with.
“Again in the last seven years, 23,000 millionaires have migrated from India. These are the people who are contributing to the economy. These are no ordinary people. These are highly qualified persons who are going abroad because they encourage qualified people to work in their country. Bring in a law that would stop doctors and engineers passing out from reputed institutions in India and contributing abroad,” he said.
Why forced conversion narrative now?
Goa has always been an epitome of secularism and communal harmony, which is supposed to be the epitome of Indian ethos. What has happened in the last few years that warranted the need for an anti-conversion in this peaceful State?
According to Fr Athaide, there is no problem at all. “You don’t frame laws to cater to one case. Laws are for general situations and not for individuals. There has been communal harmony in Goa since ages. But these people (BJP-RSS) are thriving on disharmony. You take away disharmony and they will be relegated to history,” he said.
Adv Khalap asked on what basis the apprehension of forced conversion is being felt?
“Conversions have happened in the past and will continue to happen. But when the emphasis is on forced conversion, there has to be some basis on which this fear is being articulated. Congress party in the last two days had a Nav Sankalp meeting where we deliberated on this issue and after two days, we came up with the slogan ‘Goen joduya, ekvott koruya (unite Goa, stay together),” he said.
The Congress party spokesperson appealed to everyone not to get swayed away by apprehensions and fears of the unknown.
“We as Goans need to come together and stay together. We appeal to BJP not to disturb the harmony of our State. We already have a lot of issues in front of us. Especially economic issues, livelihood issues of people are more important. If there is any need for any law, the government should come up with clean hands. Keep the facts in front of people and show exactly what you mean by ‘force’. On the basis of one incident, you decide that there is a necessity of a law,” Adv Khalap said.
Adv Naik said that law is necessitated to deal with circumstances and situations. It is not meant for dealing with one case. “If a particular set of situations needs to be tackled with a new law, then it can be brought into place so long it fits the test of the law. Laws are enacted in the Assembly. BJP believes everybody should live together in harmony. Also, if you see the number of MLAs from minority who get elected on BJP ticket, then the answer is there for everyone,” he said.
Speaking on circumstances, he said that when there are more than one complaints, then that particular set of facts have to be dealt with more effectively, then it has to be done with existing laws.
“But if those sets of facts and circumstances have to be dealt with by a separate law, then the law can be precipitated and necessitated,” Adv Naik said.
This debate surrounding the need for need for an anti-conversion law in Goa, where people of different faiths have been co-existing in harmony since centuries, is not going to end soon. But what is important to note that at a time when Goa State is still reeling under aftershocks of pandemic and Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has led to inflation shooting through the roof, the focus should be more on stabilising the economy and job creation rather than ruffle feathers of a peace loving society.