State of Anti-conversion law in India

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Anti-conversion law are state level statutes enacted to regulate religious conversions. The laws are currently in force in 8 states out of 29. These are: Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand. Apart from few differences they are very much similar in content and structure. All these laws prevent any person from converting their religion either directly are forcefully. Penalties for breaching the laws are ranging from monetary to imprisonment or other stiffer penalties if the members if from schedule caste or schedule tribes.

I. History of Anti-conversion Laws

India is a nation that is home to a diversity of religious beliefs and practices.  The Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of four major world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.[1] According to reported 2011 census data, 79.80% of the population of India is Hindu, 14.23% Muslim, 2.30% Christian, 1.72% Sikh, 0.70% Buddhist, and 0.37% Jain.[2]

The anti-conversion laws were originally introduced by Hindu princely states mainly during the latter half of 1930s in order to preserve Hindu religious identity.

Following India’s independence, the Parliament introduced a number of anti-conversion bills, but none were enacted.  First, the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill was introduced in 1954, which sought to enforce “licensing of missionaries and the registration of conversion with government officials.”  This bill failed to gather majority support in the lower house of Parliament and was rejected by its members.  This was followed by the introduction of the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill in 1960, “which aimed at checking conversion of Hindus to ‘non-Indian religions’ which, as per the definition in the Bill, included Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism,”[3] and the Freedom of Religion Bill in 1979, which sought “official curbs on inter-religious conversion.” These bills were also not passed by Parliament due to a lack of parliamentary support.  At the state level, Freedom of Religion Acts have been enacted to regulate religious conversions carried out by force, fraud, or other inducements, as discussed below.

II. Overview of State Initiatives

In the 1980s, the target of anti-conversion legislation was largely Muslims seeking to convert non-Muslims, while “Christianity has received more attention since the 1990s because of its association with Western-style colonialism and the role active proselytizing plays in the course of being a good Christian.”  

While there are some variations between the state laws, they are very similar in their content and structure. The goal has been essentially the same in each draft bill: to constrain the ability of communities and individuals to convert ‘from the religion of one’s forefathers,’ often in the name of protecting those making up the ‘weaker’ or more easily ‘influenced’ sectors of society—namely women, children, backward castes and untouchables.

III. Examination of State-Level Legislation

A. Odisha (Formerly Orissa)

Odisha was the first state to enact anti-conversion legislation, the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act,1967.  Section 3 of that Act stipulates that “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 inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.”[4]  Similar provisions appear in all current anti-conversion laws. 

The Act defines “conversion” as “renouncing one religion and adopting another.”  It further defines “force” to “include a show of force or a threat of injury of any kind, including the threat of divine displeasure or social excommunication.” Under the Act, “inducement” includes “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,” and “fraud” is defined to include “misrepresentation or any other fraudulent contrivance.”

In 1989, the Orissa Freedom of Religion Rules[5] were issued, which “required the priest performing the ceremony of conversion to ‘intimate the date, time, and place of the ceremony along with the names and addresses of the persons to be converted to the concerned District Magistrate before fifteen days of the said ceremony.’ Failure to do so would result in a fine of 1,000 rupees.  

B. Madhya Pradesh

The State of Madhya Pradesh was the second state to enact an anti-conversion law, the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968. Instead of using the term “inducement,” the Act uses the term “allurement,” which is defined under section 2(a) as an “offer of any temptation in the form of (i) any gift or gratification, either in cash or kind; (ii) grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise.”  Section 3 of the Act states that “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 any such conversion.” The crime is punishable with imprisonment of up to one year, a fine of up to 5,000 rupees, or both.  If the crime is committed against a minor, woman, or person belonging to an SC/ST, the term of imprisonment may be increased to a maximum of two years and the fine up to 10,000 rupees. Under section 5 of the Act, notice of the conversion must be given to the District Magistrate by the religious priest or the person who converts any person “within seven days after the date of such ceremony.”

The Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly approved a amendment to the state’s 1968 anti-conversion law in August 2013 “that would make the law more stringent.”  According to a news report, the 2013 amendment would enhance jail terms and fines for forced conversions (up to three years and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees, and in the case of a minor, woman, or person belonging to an SC/ST up to four years and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees), make it compulsory for the priest to request prior permission for the proposed conversion before conversion, and require the person who has converted to inform authorities within a stipulated period of time.  However, the state’s Governor has yet to grant assent to the law.

C. Arunachal Pradesh

Following the High Court cases in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, anti-conversion legislation was implemented in the states of Andra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Arunachal Pradesh in 1978.  The State of Arunachal Pradesh’s anti-conversion provisions are contained in the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978, and are along similar lines to those enacted in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.[6]

Section 3 of the Act stipulates that “no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to any other religious faith by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.”  Conversion “means renouncing one religious faith and adopting another religious faith, and ‘convert’ shall be construed accordingly.” Under the law religious faith includes “indigenous faith,” which is defined as religions, beliefs and practices including rites, rituals, festivals, observances, performances, abstinence, customs as have been found sanctioned, approved, performed by the indigenous communities of Arunachal Pradesh from the time these communities have been known and includes Buddhism as prevalent among Monpas, Menbas, Sherdukpens, Khambas, Khamtis and Singaphoos, Vaishnavism as practised by Noctes, Akas, and Nature worships including worships of Donyi-Polo, as prevalent among other indigenous communities of Arunachal Pradesh.[7]

The term “force” in the law includes a “show of force or a threat of injury of any kind including threat of divine displeasure or social excommunication.” The term “fraud” is defined to include “misrepresentation or any other fraudulent contrivance,” and “inducement” means “the offer of any gift or gratification, either cash or in kind and shall also include the grant of any benefit, either pecuniary or otherwise.”  The crime of forcible conversion is punishable with imprisonment of up to two years and fine of up to 10,000 rupees.  Section 5 of the Act requires notice of a conversion by the priest or “whoever converts any person” within a prescribed period to be established by subsidiary rules.

D. Chhattisgarh

The State of Chhattisgarh was established in November 2000 as a result of the partitioning of the south-eastern districts of Madhya Pradesh.  Chhattisgarh reportedly retained the anti-conversion law of Madhya Pradesh and adopted it under the title Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968. The subsidiary rules for implementation of the Act were also retained.

In 2006, the state legislature, passed an amendment to the 1968 Act to make it more stringent, but the measure is still awaiting assent.  The amendment would redefine “conversion” to provide that “the return in ancestor’s original religion or his own original religion by any person shall not be construed as ‘conversion’.”  The measure would also increase the punishment and fines for forced conversion, require prior permission from a district magistrate before a conversion takes place, stipulate that notice must be given to the magistrate thirty days prior to the conversion, and authorize the magistrate after an inquiry order to “permit or refuse to permit any person to convert, any person, from one religious faith to another and such permission shall be valid for two months from the date of its order.” This order would only be appealable to a district judge “whose decision shall be final.” The bill states that anyone found guilty of converting any person in contravention of the district magistrate’s order commits a cognizable offense punishable by imprisonment for up to three years and a fine of up to 20,000 rupees.[8]

E. Gujarat

The anti-conversion law in the State of Gujarat was enacted as the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003. The purpose of the Act is to prohibit conversions from one religion to another by the use of force, allurement, or fraudulent means.  

Section 3 of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003 prohibits forcible conversion and states that “no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion to another by use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet such conversion.” Unlike the legislation of other states, however, the wording of the definition of “convert” is slightly different, and means “to make one person to renounce one religion and adopt another religion.”  Any person who contravenes section 3 is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years and is also liable to a fine of up to 50,000 rupees.  If the crime is committed against a minor, woman, or person belonging to an SC/ST, it is “punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to four years and fine, which may extend to 100,000 rupees.”

Unlike the other state acts where only prior or subsequent notice is required, under section 5 of the Gujarat Act, a person wanting to convert must seek prior permission from the District Magistrate with respect to the conversion.  The section also requires the person who is converted to send a notice to the District Magistrate of the “[district] concerned in which the ceremony has taken place of the fact of such conversion within such period and in such form as may be prescribed by rules.”  The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Rules 2008 stipulate that such a notice should be given “within ten days from the date of such conversion ceremony.”  Failure to comply with the permission or notice provisions is punishable by imprisonment for up to one year or a fine of up to 1,000 rupees, or both.[9]\

F. Himachal Pradesh

The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 is “modelled on existing anti-conversion laws in other Indian states” and came into effect on February 18, 2007.

Section 3 of the Act prohibits conversion “by the use of force or by inducement or by any other fraudulent means.” One important difference, however, is that “the proviso to the prohibition clause of the Himachal Pradesh Act further goes on to declare that ‘any person who has been converted from one religion to another, in contravention of the provisions of this section, shall be deemed not to have been converted.’” The Himachal Pradesh Act also uses the term “inducement” instead of “allurement.”

Section 4(1) of the Act requires any person wishing to convert to another religion to give at least thirty days’ prior notice to district authorities.  However, “no notice shall be required if a person reverts back to his original religion.” Notice of a conversion must be made to the District Magistrate who can order an enquiry; failure to do so is subject to punishment. According to section 5, an offense under section 3 is punishable with imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to 25,000 rupees, or both. In the case of the conversion of a minor, woman, or SC/ST, the term of imprisonment may extend to three years and the fine may be increased to 50,000 rupees.[10]

In a landmark 2007 decision, the Himachal Pradesh High Court struck down section 4 of the Act and Rules 3 and 5 of the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Rules 2007, which implement the Act. The Court held that these provisions were in violation of article 14 of the Constitution, and that “a person not only has a right of conscience, the right of belief, the right to change his belief, but also has the right to keep his beliefs secret.” The Court, after examining the anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, came to the conclusion “that the Himachal Act had gone beyond the other two Acts and had infringed on the fundamental rights of the convertee,”.  

G. Rajasthan

Rajasthan State’s Parliament also passed an anti-conversion bill in 2006, but it was never given assent by the state’s governor.[11]  According to one report, the governor “did not sign the bill because of complaints by religious minorities.” Under the bill, “conversion” was defined as “renouncing one’s own religion and adopting another,” and “own religion” was described as “[the] religion of one’s forefathers.” Punishment for conversion is two years’ imprisonment, which may extend to five years, and fines of up to fifty thousand rupees. The offense is “cognizable and non-bailable and shall not be investigated by an officer below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police.”[12]

H. Tamil Nadu

The Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance 2002 was issued, but was subsequently replaced by the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act 2002 in the same year.  The Act, now repealed, was passed under the initiative of the right-wing government led by former chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the late Jayaram Jayalalithaa.  The Act adhered to the general framework as laid down in the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967.[13]  Section 3 stated that “no person shall convert or attempt to convert directly or otherwise any person from one religion to another either by use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means.” Anyone who “converts any person from one religion to another either by performing any ceremony by himself for such conversion as a religious priest or by taking part directly or indirectly in such ceremony” was required to send notice to the District Magistrate within the prescribed period. The Act imposed a fine of up to 50,000 rupees and three years of imprisonment on anyone found guilty of coercing religious conversions. If the conversions involved women, minors, or members of the SC/ST, a fine of 1,000,000 rupees and four years of imprisonment were imposed.[14]

Thousands of Dalits converted to Christianity and Buddhism without approval from the local magistrate in protest of the new anti-conversion laws. On May 21, 2004, due to electoral implications and representation from minorities against the anti-conversion provisions, the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act was repealed by the state government.[15]

I. Jharkhand

Jharkhand, a northern Indian state, enacted an anti-conversion law on August 12, 2017. The BJP, the governing party in Jharkhand, held a state-level executive meeting on May 1, 2017, where they “adopted a resolution proposing a law to end religious conversion activities in the state.”[16] 

The Jharkhand Vidhan Sabha (Legislative Assembly) passed the Jharkhand Dharm Swatantra Bill, 2017 (also known as the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Bill, 2017) on August 12, 2017. News reports indicate that on September 5, 2017, Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu gave her assent to the Bill, although the Act itself states that the governor approved the Bill on September 6, 2017.[17]

According to section 4, the contravention of section 3 (“Prohibition of forcible conversion”) is a cognizable and nonbailable offense punishable with imprisonment for up to three years, a fine of up to 50,000 rupees, or both.  In the case of the conversion of a minor, woman, or SC/ST, the term of imprisonment may extend to four years and the fine may be increased to 100,000 rupees. Section 5 requires that a person wanting to convert must seek prior permission from the District Magistrate with respect to the conversion. The Act also requires that the person who is converted send a notice to the District Magistrate of the “district concerned in which the ceremony has taken place of the fact of such conversion within such period and in such form as may be prescribed by rules.” 

J. Uttarakhand

On November 20, 2017, the High Court of Uttarakhand issued a decision in the context of a habeas corpus petition suggesting that the state government pass an anti-conversion law. The petition sought the production of one Ms. Sharma, who had allegedly married a Husain Ansari (alias Atul Sharma). Mr. Sharma’s conversion to Hinduism as well as his marriage to Ms. Sharma were contested in the case.[18] The Court noted that this case was not the first it had considered involving inter-religious marriages, and that in some of these cases conversion was a “sham” undertaken to “facilitate the process of marriage”:

Section 3 of the new law provides that forced conversion is punishable with imprisonment of between one to five years and a fine (which is not specified in the Act). If the conversion involves a woman, minor, or member of the SC/ST, the term of imprisonment is two to seven years and a fine. Section 3 stipulates an exemption for any person who “comes back to this ancestral religion,” which is not deemed conversion under the Act.[19]

Section 8 stipulates that a person who desires to convert his/her religion is required to give a declaration at least one month in advance to the District Magistrate or the Executive Magistrate “that he wishes to convert his religion on his own and at his free consent and without any force, coercion, undue influence or allurement.” The religious priest who performs the conversion ceremony is also required to give one month’s advance notice of such conversion to the District Magistrate or any other officer appointed for that purpose by the District Magistrate of the district where such ceremony is proposed to be performed. The District Magistrate, after receiving the information “shall get an enquiry conducted through police, with regard to real intention, purpose and cause of that proposed religion conversion.” Contravention of the declaration/notice requirements “have the effect of rendering the said conversion, illegal and void” and are subject to stipulated punishments.

One important difference between the Uttarakhand measure and that of other states is that it contains a provision on marriage and religious conversion that stipulates as follows:

Any marriage which was done for the sole purpose of conversion by the man of one religion with the woman of another religion either by converting himself before or after marriage or by converting the woman before or after marriage may be declared null and void by the Family Court or where a Family Court is not established, the Court having jurisdiction to try such case on a petition presented by either party thereto against the other party of the marriage.

Conclusion

India is a nation that is home to a diversity of religious beliefs and practices.  The Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of four major world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.[20] According to reported 2011 census data, 79.80% of the population of India is Hindu, 14.23% Muslim, 2.30% Christian, 1.72% Sikh, 0.70% Buddhist, and 0.37% Jain. Anti-conversion law are state level statutes enacted to regulate religious conversions. All these laws prevent any person from converting their religion either directly are forcefully. Penalties for breaching the laws are ranging from monetary to imprisonment or other stiffer penalties if the members if from schedule caste or schedule tribes.


[1] Religion: 2001 Census Data, OFFICE OF THE REGISTRAR GENERAL & CENSUS COMMISSIONER, INDIA, http://census india.gov.in/Census_And_You/religion.aspx (last visited Apr. 19, 2017), archived at https://perma.cc/ME8W-UBXD.

[2] Hindu Population Reducing in India as ‘They Never Convert People’: Kiren Rijiju, DECCAN CHRONICLE (Feb. 13, 2017; updated Feb. 14, 2017), http://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/130217/hindu-population-reducing-in-india-as-they-never-convert-people-kiren-rijiju.html, archived at https://perma.cc/8BUG-KQ4N; see also C-1 Population by Religious Community, OFFICE OF THE REGISTRAR GENERAL & CENSUS COMMISSIONER, INDIA, http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/C-01.html (last visited Apr. 19, 2017), archived at https://perma.cc/Q7R7-DRRB.

[3] INDIAN LAW INSTITUTE, A STUDY OF COMPATIBILITY OF ANTI-CONVERSION LAWS WITH RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF RELIGION IN INDIA 31 (2007) (submitted to India’s National Commission for Minorities)

[4]  Orissa Freedom of Religion Act § 3.

[5] Orissa Freedom of Religion Rules, 1989, available at http://www.kandhamal.net/DownloadMat/Orissa_ Freedom_of_Religion_Rules.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/EAZ9-FC8A.

[6] Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978, http://acts.gov.in/AR/2897.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/9THA-9M2C.

[7] Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978, archived at https://perma.cc/9THA-9M2C.

[8]Chhattisgarh Passes Anti-conversion Bill, GULF NEWS (Aug. 4, 2006)http://gulfnews.com/news/asia/india/ chhattisgarh-passes-anti-conversion-bill-1.248514, archived at https://perma.cc/9RK6-6XZ4; Saadiya Suleman, Note, Freedom of Religion and Anti Conversion Laws in India: An Overview, 1(1) ILI L. REV. 106, 118 (Feb. 1, 2010), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1597854, archived at https://perma.cc/9WMZ UZ69.

[9] Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2006, http://www.kandhamal.net/DownloadMat/Gujarat_ Freedom_of_Religion_Act_amendment.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/F2C8-QQYT.

[10] Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Rules, 2007, http://www.olir.it/ricerca/getdocumentopdf.php?lang= ita&Form_object_id=5901, archived at https://perma.cc/AS8H-M9NN.

[11] Rajasthan Freedom of Religion Bill, No. 12 of 2006, http://www.kandhamal.net/DownloadMat/Rajasthan_ Freedom_of_Religion_Bill.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/FPY9-ZDS2.

[12]Rajasthan Religion Bill Rejected, BBC NEWS, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/4996708.stm (last updated May, 19, 2006), archived at https://perma.cc/6P9E-KQKA.

[13] The Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance, BERKLEY CENTER FOR RELIGION, PEACE, AND WORLD AFFAIRS (Jan. 1, 2002), https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/quotes/the-tamil-nadu_prohibition-of-forcible-conversion-of-religion-ordinance, archived at https://perma.cc/P4L3-K7UK.

[14] Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act, No. 56 of 2002, available at http://www.lawsofindia.org/pdf/tamil_nadu/2002/2002TN56.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/6X4B-8YRS.

[15] Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion (Repeal) Act, 2006, GOVERNMENT GAZETTE EXTRAORDINARY, June 7, 2006, http://cms.tn.gov.in/sites/default/files/acts/ACT_10to12_131_07JUN06_0.pdf, archived at https://perma.cc/5TL5-C554;

[16] Saji Thomas, India: Hindu Party Pushes Anti-Conversion Law in Jharkhand, EURASIA REVIEW (May 5, 2017), https://www.eurasiareview.com/05052017-india-hindu-party-pushes-anti-conversion-law-in-jharkhand/, archived at https://perma.cc/YYK8-7Z8L.

[17] Prashant Pandey, Jharkhand Guv Approves Freedom of Religion Bill, Land Act; BJP Welcomes Move, INDIANEXPRESS (Sept. 6, 2017), http://indianexpress.com/article/india/jharkhand-guv-approves-freedom-of- religion-bill land-act-bjp-welcomes-move, archived at https://perma.cc/TJN5-R3NL; Jharkhand Dharm Swatantra Act, No. 17 of 2017, JHARKHAND EXTRAORDINARY GAZETTE No. 657, Sept. 11, 2017, http://jhr2.nic.in/egazette/Notification.aspx (locate Act through search or browse), archived at https://perma.cc/2EYL-9PKX.

[18] Apoorva Mandhani, Uttarakhand HC Suggests Enactment of Freedom of Religion Act to Curb “Sham Conversions” for Marriage [Read Order], LIVELAW.IN (Nov. 20, 2017), http://www.livelaw.in/uttarakhand-hc-suggests-enactment-freedom-religion-act-curb-sham-conversions-marriage-read-order/, archived at https://perma.cc/JN7J-MXD5.

[19] Anti-Conversion’ Bill Becomes Law in Uttarakhand, CHRISTIAN TODAY (May 6, 2018), http://www.christian today.co.in/article/anti.conversion.bill.becomes.law.in.uttarakhand/18557.htm.

[20] Religion: 2001 Census Data, OFFICE OF THE REGISTRAR GENERAL & CENSUS COMMISSIONER, INDIA, http://census india.gov.in/Census_And_You/religion.aspx (last visited Apr. 19, 2017), archived at https://perma.cc/ME8W-UBXD.

Author: Harsh Shankar, Chanakya national law university

Editor: Kanishka VaishSenior Editor, LexLife India.

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