An assault on secularism

Print edition : December 06, 2002

The Tamil Nadu government's Bill against religious conversions is an assault on secularism, a basic feature of the Constitution, which was championed by the pioneers of the Dravidian movement.

Leaders of the Tamil Nadu Minority Forum with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. At the meeting they sought the withdrawal of the conversion Bill.-VINO JOHN

THE Tamil Nadu Bill that prohibits conversion from one religion to another "by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means" has been steered through the State Assembly by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government, with the long arm extended by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members in the House. In doing this, the ruling party has ignored the storm of protest from the Opposition parties and the united representation of the leaders of the religious minorities against the Bill. What surprises one is not the passing of the bill by an unassailable majority, but the claim of the ruling party that it always stands by the ideology of Anna and MGR (C.N. Annadurai and M.G. Ramachandran, both leaders of the Dravidian movement and former Chief Ministers). By initiating this move, the AIADMK has made a deep dent in its own policy.

On the face of it, the Bill appears to be impartial, indiscriminating and sustainable in a court of law but if we examine the various sections of the Bill, objects and reasons stated therein, the intentions behind it and the urgency shown by the government, the Bill has to be vehemently opposed for following reasons: (1) The very purpose of the Bill is to muzzle the rights of the minorities in respect of conversion; (2) it is a planned assault on secularism; (3) it is in violation of the scheme of the Constitution of India and some of its provisions; (4) it goes against the long-cherished principles of rationalism and secularism advocated by Anna and MGR; and above all, (5) it is against the basic characteristics of Hinduism nurtured by savants like Swami Vivekananda.

It is up to the AIADMK to follow or discard the basic ideology of the Dravidian movement, but it has no right to deprive the minorities of their rights, overriding the principle of secularism as conceived by the Constitution.

The rights of the minorities have been protected under Article 25 and Article 26 of the Constitution. Under Article 25, which grants to the people the "right to freedom of religion", and says, "all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion" subject to "public order, morality and health''. When the draft article was debated in the Constituent Assembly, the change of faith from one religion to another also came up for discussion. Participating in the debate, K.M. Munshi observed: "I know it was on this word that the Indian Christian community laid the greatest emphasis not because it wanted to convert the people aggressively but because the word `propagate' was a fundamental part of their tenet. Even if the word were not there, I am sure, under the freedom of speech, which the Constitution guarantees, it will be open to any religious community to persuade other people to join their faith. So long as religion is religion, conversion by free exercise of the conscience has to be recognised." So, under the scheme of the Indian Constitution, conversion from one religion to another by an individual or a community is lawful and permissible.

Nevertheless, the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice A.N. Ray, in Rev. Stanislaus vs State of Madhya Pradesh and others (1977), interpreted the word `propagate' used in Article 25(1) of the Constitution as `defined' in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary - "to spread from person to person, or from place to place, to disseminate, diffuse (a statement, belief, practice etc.)" and in the Century Dictionary (which is an Encyclopaedic Lexicon of the English Language) Vol. VI - "to transmit or spread from person to person or from place to place; carry forward or onward; diffuse; extend; as `propagate' a report; `propagate' the Christian religion." The Bench observed: "We have no doubt that it is in this sense that the word `propagate' has been used in Article 25 (1), for what the Article grants is not the right to convert another person to one's own religion, but to transmit or spread one's religion by an exposition of its tenets."

H.M. Seervai, one of the luminaries of constitutional law, has observed, "The judgment of the Supreme Court is clearly wrong and it is productive of greatest public mischief and ought to be overruled."

Undisputedly, the phrase `freedom of conscience' allows free choice of religion. The right to propagate and practise one's views for the edification of others may sometimes lead to the conversion of other persons. If the law punishes any person who is responsible for the conversion owing to his inspiring propaganda and devoted practice, such punishment is a flagrant violation of the Constitution.

IT is true that a considerable number of people embraced Islam during Mughul rule, with the exception of the period of Akbar, owing to use of force and violence. In Europe, Christianity was established as a result of the aggressive punishment ordered by the Council of Inquisition. However, British rule in India kept a distance in the affairs of any religion and it did not patronise the activities of Christian missionaries. Swami Vivekananda has aptly stated: "The Hindus were the first to welcome missionaries, not the Englishmen who were engaged in trade. I have great admiration for some of the great missionaries of the later period, who were true servants of Jesus and did not vilify the people or spread vile falsehoods about them. They were gentle, kindly men. When Englishmen became masters of India, the missionary enterprises began to become stagnant, a condition which characterises missionary efforts in India today." The observation of Swami Vivekananda about Christian missionaries has not been belied.

What are the factors that have led some Hindus to embrace Islam or Christianity or Buddhism even after the fall of Mughul empire and the end of British rule in India? Despite the aid, grant, concession and reservation for the educationally and socially depressed classes and other backward classes, some people embrace other religions not because of their knowledge of or inclination towards other religions but because of the atrocities, injustice, insults and humiliation engineered against them by the dominant communities.

Some people, attracted by the selfless service of Christian missionaries in the fields of education, health and orphanages to alleviate the suffering of the sick and the poor, embrace Christianity, while denouncing Hinduism.

Unless atrocities and outrages committed against depressed classes are curbed by a stringent law, the change of faith from Hinduism to other religions will not be easily checked by the present Bill. Even today, Hinduism is reluctant to respect the right to equality and is indifferent to the establishment of fraternity in society. It is hesitant to render service for the uplift of weaker sections, though the incomes of temples and mutts are enormous.

What is necessary is not a law prohibiting conversion from one religion to another but a few amendments to the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to punish those who engineer communal and religious violence against people from depressed classes and weaker sections and enhanced terms of punishment should be provided against these elements.

The Bill provides the assurance that no prosecution for an offence under it shall be initiated except by the District Magistrate (Collector) or the District Revenue Officer. It may safeguard a person to some extent from arbitrary registration of cases. At the same time, Section 5 of the Bill directs that "whoever converts any person from one religion to another, shall send intimation within one month about the conversion to the District Magistrate, failing which he shall be punished with the imprisonment for a term of one year or with fine of one thousand rupees or with both". If there is an allegation against any person for converting a person "by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means", it shall be the responsibility of the affected person to lodge a complaint with the district magistrate. Why does the Bill compel the person who holds the ceremony of conversion to send intimation to the District Magistrate rather than insist on receiving the complaint from the complainants? It is a threat and criminal intimidation by the law itself against the persons who perform the ceremony of conversion. In prescribing the terms of imprisonment as well, the Bill is unfairly discriminatory and goes against the theory of penology.

In Europe, Australia and the United States of America, the majority of the population belongs to Christianity. However, the Constitutions of most of these nations have recognised the concept of secularism with great emphasis. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says: "Congress shall make no law respecting neither establishing of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The Constitution of Australia has not only prevented the establishing of any religion and imposition of any religious observance but also the religious test for the public office under the Commonwealths. In other words, the Constitution has erected an impregnable wall between the church and the state. On the lines of the Western concept of secularism, the founding fathers of the Constitution of India also have incorporated Article 27, which prevents collection of tax for promoting or maintaining any religion, and Article 28, which lays down that religious instructions in state-aided educational institutions have been prohibited by the government. Although India's approach to the adoption of the concept of secularism is different from that of the western countries, the objective of the Indian Constitution is the same as that of their Constitutions; the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution of India inserted two words "socialist secular" in the Preamble with the great objective of giving effect to the principle of secularism in the country. The Supreme Court also has repeatedly reiterated that secularism is one of the basic structures of the Constitution. Hence the Bill on conversion adopted by the Tamil Nadu Assembly is an assault on secularism.

Right from his entry into politics, Anna championed the cause of secularism which is a synthesis of theism and atheism. MGR declared that he was a true disciple of Anna. It is noteworthy that neither Anna nor MGR had ever dreamt of such aggressive transgression against secularism.

The hallmarks of Hinduism are its tolerance, respect to all religions and the freedom it gives to believers to worship God or Gods in their own way. Even an atheist or agnostic is considered a Hindu if his parents are Hindus or if he has not joined any other religion. Hinduism does not preach enmity or hatred against any other religion. Swami Vivekananda, who respected all religions, rightly observed: "The incarnation of God (Shri Krishna) preached himself first: `I am the god incarnate; I am the inspirer of all books; I am the inspirer of all religions' and thus we do not reject any." Had the Tamil Nadu government understood the essence of this teaching it would not have got this Bill passed.

Aladi Aruna, a former member of Parliament, was Minister of Law, Tamil Nadu, from 1996 to 2001.

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