M. S. Thirumalai

Laws against Conversion: Position in Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism

Laws against conversion to “other” religions have been passed in several nations. Muslim laws proscribe conversion of Muslims to other religions as apostasy with severe punishments to those who commit this apostasy. There are traditional and scriptural sanctions for this in Islam.

In religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, converts to other religions may lose their social identity and social status; but political or communal strategies to award penalties such as imprisonment to the converts or to those who encourage or bring about such conversion has evolved along with the preaching of the Gospel to the nations, side by side with the expansion of European colonialism.

Hindu and Buddhist Majority Nations

The focus against conversion in laws passed in Hindu and Buddhist majority nations, however, is primarily on those who initiate, arrange, and conduct such conversions. In these laws, the individual who gets converted is obliged to make a declaration with a variety of details including the reasons for such conversion to government officials. The organizers of such conversions, however, are liable to receive a variety of punishments, often such acts being considered anti-social, and anti-national.

In South Asia, all nations, except India, have made constitutional declaration choosing the religion of the majority as the State Religion. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives declare Islam to be the State religion. Nepal had declared, until recently, Hinduism to be its State religion. Bhutan and Sri Lanka have declared Buddhism to be their State religion.

While Buddhism is practiced by a smaller segment in South Asia, compared to its total population in the world, nearly 40% or more of Islamic population lives in the Indian subcontinent (South Asia). Over 90 percent of the Hindu population lives in India.

A History of Laws Against Conversion in India

In India, laws against conversion have a formal history at least from 1936, when a princely state, Raigarh, a province which had its own government and was generally ruled by a royal family, passed a law against conversion. The princely states were really not wholly independent, but were under the superintendence of the British Indian Administration. In some sense and in some functions, these provinces were outside the direct rule of British India Government, but were still subject to the influence and authority of British India Government.

Earlier, the British India had passed an act in 1850 called the Caste Disabilities Removal Act, 1850 by which it was declared, “Law or usage which inflicts forfeiture of, or affects, rights on change of religion or loss of caste to cease to be enforced.–So much of any law or usage now in force within India as inflicts on any person forfeiture of rights or property, or may be held in any way to impair or affect any right of inheritance, by reason of his or her renouncing, or having been excluded from the communion of, any religion, or being deprived of caste, shall cease to be enforced as law in any Court.” (http://www.helplinelaw.com/docs/THE%20CASTE%20DISABILITIES%20REMOVAL%20ACT,%201850).

The Act of 1850 was seen to be an effort on the part of the British to ensure that converts to Christianity (“protecting the interests of converts to the rulers’ religion” http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3736/is_200605/ai_n16779605/pg_3?tag=artBody;col1) did not lose their right of inheritance based on local social custom and usage. In reality, however, this act was an extension of an earlier act by which disputes between members of different religious groups would be settled based not on any particular practice or law of one religion over the practice or law of another religion. Pluralistic society in the Indian subcontinent demanded a reasonable provision to settle disputes between members of different religious groups.

After the First War of Independence in 1857, also called the Sepoy Mutiny, Queen Victoria in her proclamation declared, “it to be Our Royal will and pleasure that none be in any wise favored, none molested or disquieted, by reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law.” http://www.mssu.edu/projectsouthasia/history/primarydocs/political_history/ABKeithDoc029.htm

In recent years, nations with Buddhist majority have also passed laws against conversion of Buddhists to non-Buddhist religions. For example, Sri Lankan legislators have proposed stiff laws against Buddhists converting to other religions.

Current Indian Situation: “Freedom of Religion”

News from India, home to more than billion people with a dominant majority Hindu population, reveals a trend that as the BJP, generally considered to be a Hindu nationalist party, and its allies come to power in various states (provinces), they tend to pass legislation against religious conversion from one religion to another. They tend to call such laws as Freedom of Religion laws. However, even before the BJP became a popular political organization mustering enough votes to seize power, the Indian National Congress, which claimed to be a champion of all religious groups, especially the minorities, was instrumental in passing laws against conversion in some states. Thus, changing trends in electoral politics was one of the major reasons for the introduction or abolition of such laws.

However, there seems to be a definite policy followed by the current leadership in Indian National Congress opposing passing of any such legislation and implementing the older ones already in the statute book. Leftist political parties, including the Communist parties in India, have consistently opposed any move to pass legislation or implement existing ones that will proscribe conversion from one religion to another.

The State of Gujarat

The state of Gujarat in western India has begun to implement their Freedom of Religion Act this year. According to this Act, both the person intending to convert to another religion and the clergy who wants to facilitate this process must apply and obtain permission from the District Magistrate before conversion takes place.

An Attempt in South India

Earlier some years ago, the then ruling party (AIADMK) in the state of Tamilnadu in south India passed a Freedom of Religion Bill in the state legislature which was repealed, and subsequently removed from the statute book by the political party (DMK) that came to power defeating AIADMK at the polls. The Government Order that notified the implementation of the law against conversion gives us a picture of the provisions of such laws in India. We shall look at one such order now.

An actual government order is reproduced below:

NO. 659 Chennai, Saturday, October 5, 2002.
Purattasi 19, Chirtabhanu, Thiruvalluvar Aandu – 2033.
Part IV – Section – 2.

The following Ordinance which was promulgated by the Governor on 5th October 2002 is hereby published for general information:

Tamil Nadu Ordinance N. 9 of 2002.

An ordinance to provide for prohibition of conversion from one religion to another by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means and for matters incidental thereto . . .

Whereas the Legislative Assembly of the State is not in session and the Governor of Tamil Nadu is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary for him to take immediate action for the purpose hereinafter appearing;

NOW THEREFORE, in exercise of the powers conferred by clause (1) of Article 213 of the Constitution, the Governor hereby promulgates the following Ordinance:-

1. (1) This Ordinance may be called the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2002.

(2) It shall come into force at once. 

2. In this Ordinance, unless the context otherwise requires:
(a) “allurement” means 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:
(b) “convert” means to make one person to renounce one religion and adopt another religion:
(c) “force” includes a show of force or a threat of injuiry of anhy kind including of divine displeasure or social excommunication.
(d) “fraudulent means” includes misrepresentation of any other fraudulent contrivance.
(e) “minor” means a person under eighteen years of age. 

3. No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion to another by the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion. 

4. Whoever contravenes the provisions of section 3 shall, without prejudice to any civil liability, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and also be liable to fine which may extend to fifty thousand rupees:

Provided that whoever contravenes the provisions of section 3 in respect of a minor, a woman or a person belonging to Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribe shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to four years and also be liable to fine which may extend to one lakh rupees. 

5. (1) Whoever 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 shall, within such period as may be prescribed, send an intimation to the District Magistrate of the district in which the ceremony has taken place of the fact of such conversion in such form as may be prescribed.
(2) Whoever fails, without sufficient cause, to comply with the provisions of sub-section (1) shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees or with both. 

6. No prosecution for an offence under this Ordinance shall be instituted except by or with the previous sanction of the District Magistrate or such other authority, not below the rank of a District Revenue Officer, as may be authorised by him in that behalf.

7. (1) The State Government may make rules for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this Ordinance.
(2) Every rule made under this Ordinance shall as soon as possible after it is made be placed on the table of the Legislative Assembly, and if before the expiry of the session in which it is so placed or the next session, the Assembly makes any modification in any such rule or the Assembly decides that the rule should not be made, the rule shall thereafter have effect only in such modified form, or be of no effect, as the case may be, so, however, that any such modification or annulment shall be without prejudice to the validity of anything previously done under that rule. 

5th October, 2002. Governor of Tamil Nadu. 


Reports have been received by the Government that conversions from one religion to another are made by use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means. Bringing in a legislation to prohibit such conversions will act as a deterrent against the anti-social and vested interest groups exploiting the innocent people belonging to depressed classes. It may also be useful to nip in the bud the attempts by certain religious fundamentalists and subversive forces to create communal tension under the garb of religious conversion. The Government have, therefore, decided to enact a law to prevent conversion by use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means. 

2. The Ordinance seeks to give effect to the above decision. 

(By order of the Governor),
Secretary to Government,
Law Department.

Has Become an Intense Political Issue

An overview of trends in India suggests that Indian Muslims and Christians generally oppose the proclamation and implementation of anti-conversion laws. A large majority of Hindus also seem to view such laws as counter-productive.

The issue has become a very intense political issue. BJP and its front organizations view this issue as an issue of loyalty, nationalism, and maintaining the sanctity of Hinduism as the dominant religion of India. Other religions will certainly be allowed but under the suzerainty of Hinduism, in some sense.

Judicial Pronouncements

The Constitution of India allows every individual to propagate his or her religion. However, in one of the judgments, Supreme Court Chief Justice A. N. Ray ruled, “propagation is different from conversion. Adoption of a new religion is freedom of conscience, while conversion would impinge on `freedom of choice’ granted to all citizens alike. After examining the different meanings of the word “propagate” in Article 25(1), Justice Ray expressed the view that “what Article 25(1) grants is not the right to convert another person to one’s own religion by exposition of its tenets.” (http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/op/2002/12/17/stories/2002121700110200.htm) BJP and their front organizations try to consolidate and expand their base among the Hindus.

Caste Politics – also a Factor

Caste politics also contributes to the situation: with the so-called lower and socially and economically backward castes ignoring the need for such laws, while segments of upper castes generally inclined to proclaim and implement such laws.

People Coming to Christ from Every Social Stratum

A very interesting and competent survey of the issues involved is presented by Arpita Anant in her article published in The Hindu daily newspaper from Chennai, India, dated December 17, 2002 (http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/op/2002/12/17/stories/2002121700110200.htm). She, however, seems to take the social and economic oppression of classes of people as the prime mover of conversion to another religion in India.

However, any empirical study will reveal that hundreds of thousands of people come to Christ in India on their own because of their life changing spiritual experience. Christ continues to add to His Church from all social strata and the converted Indians, for generations, continue to contribute their best for the development of their own nation in all walks of life.

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M. S. Thirumalai

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