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Indian Christians look to Supreme Court for religious freedom

Petition filed after Rajasthan court rules that people wishing to change religion must contact authorities reporter, New Delhi reporter, New Delhi

Updated: April 08, 2019 09:27 AM GMT
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Indian Christians look to Supreme Court for religious freedom

Indian Buddhist monks attend a ceremony in Ahmedabad in September 2017 when 200 people from the Dalit community and other castes converted to Buddhism. (Photo by Sam Panthaky/AFP)

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Christian leaders and activists in India are pinning hopes on the Supreme Court to set aside guidelines made by a state court on individuals changing religion.

India’s top court on April 5 postponed hearing a petition of Christian leaders that challenged the guidelines of Rajasthan high court, saying the directions violate religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution. The court postponed the hearing after the federal government said it needed more time to offer a response to the petition.  

Christian leaders took up the case after the Rajasthan court on Dec. 14 last year passed general guidelines in restricting conversions. The court was hearing a habeas corpus petition regarding a Hindu girl who married a Muslim, presumably after changing her religion to Islam.

The court directed, among other things, that a person desirous of changing religion should inform the district’s top government official, who would publicize it for a week. “Only after a week's time, anyone converting for purpose of marriage can do so,” said the court.

The state court’s guideline “infringes upon the fundamental rights of all persons” and violates provisions of the Indian constitution, said Christian leader A.C Michael, whose Alliance Defending Freedom organization was first to object in the Supreme Court.

The directions violate the freedom of religion, equality before law and personal liberty guaranteed to all Indian citizens without any discrimination based on religion, caste, age or gender, Michael said.

Laws restricting conversion, commonly called anti-conversion laws, are in force in at least eight of the country's 29 states but India has no national law banning or restricting conversion.

The Hindu-majority Rajasthan state legislature passed an anti-conversion bill in 2006, but the state governor refused to sign it into law reportedly following objections from religious minorities, primarily Muslims and Christians.

Michael said the push for laws and directions restricting conversion comes from Hindu groups who believe their people are forcibly converted for marriage or other purposes.

For Christians there cannot be forcible conversion. “The act of accepting any religious belief or doctrine is a private affair and is and exercised only within a person’s conscience. The act of conversion is a personal act and does not require the state to be notified of such an act of conversion,” said Michael.

Joseph Dias, general secretary of the Catholic Secular Forum, has similar views and said the right to choose or even reject any religion is an individual’s own choice and the government cannot interfere.

“Choosing faith is not a crime. The court in its order tried to restrict individual liberty and it conflicts with the idea of a secular state where freedom of religion is guaranteed in the constitution itself,” said Dias, adding that he is hopeful that such guidelines will be revoked by the Supreme Court soon.

Allen Brooks, spokesman for the Assam Christian Forum, told that the court has been given the power to make decisions by the constitution and hence it cannot undermine it.

“The constitution of the country is very clear about this. The right to freedom is a very fundamental right of the people living in India. I hope the Supreme Court will reject the guidelines set for conversions by Rajasthan court,” said Brooks.

Hindu groups have often been accused of interpreting Christian mission work in education and health care as fraudulent or being carried out with the ultimate goal of conversion. Despite anti-conversion laws, no Christian has so far been convicted of conversion but in the last decade several cases have been filed.

India’s federal Minister for Home Affairs Rajnath Singh in January openly objected to Christian missionary work.

"If somebody wants to accept a religion, he should do that. There should not be any objection to it. But if mass conversion starts happening and a lot of people start changing their religion, then it could be a matter of concern for any country," Singh said.

He said that in almost all countries, including Britain and America, minorities demand an anti-conversion law. "Here [in India] I see the majority demand that there should be an anti-conversion law. Then it is a matter of concern. It should not happen," Singh said

Hindus form 966 million or 80 percent of India's population of 1.3 billion. Muslims account for 172 million or 14 percent while Christians comprise 29 million or 2.3 percent.

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