UN Official: India’s ‘Conversion’ Laws Threaten Religious Freedom
India’s laws restricting religious conversions–intended to protect people from being forced to change their beliefs — are an obstacle to religious freedom, a senior United Nations figure said in an interview.Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, spoke to The Wall Street Journal last week.
The laws he discussed apply in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, and vary state by state. The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, for instance, says a person who wants to convert to another religion must first get permission from the district magistrate to do so. Mr. Bielefeldt argues that the laws place unreasonable restrictions not only on people’s right to convert to another religion, but also their right to propagate their own religion.
The Wall Street Journal: What are some of your observations about religious freedom in India?
Heiner Bielefeldt: It’s a birthplace of many world religions. In terms of diversity, it’s second to not a single other country. There’s a heritage of pluralism. But secularism has come under threat in India. Apart from communal violence, the main point that ranks the highest is anti-conversion laws.
WSJ: Can you please elaborate?
Mr. Bielefeldt: Conversion can mean turning to another religion or inviting someone else to turn to my religion. The former is absolutely protected [in the UN's understanding.] Causing someone else to convert is not absolutely protected as a right, nevertheless it is involved in freedom of religion and strongly protected. The state has to ensure this is possible in a non-coercive manner.
The anti-conversion laws primarily threaten not the convert, but the missionaries. For example, the prohibition of coercion is mixed with very vague concepts like inducement or allurement. Any invitation [to another religion] has an element of inducement or allurement. The law particularly in Gujarat carries a high penalty of three years’ imprisonment based on such loosely defined terms. This doesn’t do justice even to the rule of law, in which laws need to be clear, especially in criminal law.
WSJ: So this legislation doesn’t affect the right of a person to adopt another religion?
Mr. Bielefeldt: The converts themselves in Gujarat have to undergo, I’d say, a humiliating bureaucratic procedure, exposing themselves and explaining the reasons [for their conversion] as if the State were in a position of being able to assess the genuineness of conversion. This is disrespect of freedom of religion or belief.
The laws are also applied in a discriminatory manner in the practice of “re-conversion.” [This term describes cases where people revert back to their original beliefs.] Re-conversion, or so-called homecoming, ceremonies are encouraged [by some of these laws.] I heard from eyewitnesses how Indian festivals are used or abused to stage big ceremonies of mass re-conversions.
WSJ: You travelled to meet survivors of the violence against Christians in Gujarat’s Dangs district in 1998, and of the violence against Muslims in that state in 2002 where more than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed. You also visited Orissa’s Kandhamal district and Karnataka where anti-Christian violence occurred in 2008. What’s your impression of what happened?
Mr. Bielefeldt: There is a continued climate of fear, and maybe that’s even the purpose. The acts of violence are part of a broader pattern of instigating fear into the minorities, sending them a message they don’t belong to this country unless they either keep at the margins or turn to Hinduism.
People feel that not enough has been done. The state apparatus seems to function to a certain degree, nevertheless the extremely late, slow responses of some important actors like law and enforcement and security indicate a clear gap in protection.