Right to preach


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'Right to preach not taken away'

The Hindu
NEW DELHI, March 14.

The Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, Dr. Tahir Mahmood has said that Justice A. N. Ray's 1977 judgment which has been frequently quoted in the campaign against Christian
missionaries does not override the fundamental right to ``freedom of conscience'', guaranteed under Article 25 as part of the rights to ``profess'', practise and ``propagate'' religion. The judgment in the
case of Rev. Stainislaus ruled that the Constitution gave only the right to propagate religion, and ``not the right to convert another person to one's religion''.

Dr. Mahmood has pointed out that the judgment had been strongly disapproved of by some eminent jurists, including late H. M. Seervai, who had termed it ``clearly wrong'' and suggested that it ``ought to
be overruled''. Referring to the judgment in his monumental work, ``Constitutional law of India: A critical commentary'', Seervai said that Justice Ray ``mistakenly believed that if `A' deliberately sets out
to convert `B' by propagating A's religion, it would impinge on B's freedom of conscience.... Therefore, conversion does not in any way interfere with the freedom of conscience but is a
fulfilment of it and gives a meaning to it.''

Dr. Mahmood, speaking to TheHindu, explained that Justice Ray's judgment should be read in the context in which it was delivered. ``What was directly at issue there was not whether Article 25 of the
Constitution envelops the right to convert others, but the validity of anti-conversion laws enforced in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh during 1967- 68.''

The verdict upheld their validity, and later an almost identical law was enacted by Arunachal Pradesh. These are the only three States which have anti-conversion laws, and there is no central law on the subject. It was important to note, Dr. Mahmood said, that there had been ``hardly any successful prosecutions'' under these laws.  He recalled that before Independence a number of princely States
had promulgated anti-conversion laws but attempts after Independence to secure a central law did not succeed. In 1954, a Congress member had moved the ``Indian Converts (Regulation and Registration) Bill'' in Parliament proposing compulsory licensing of missionaries and registration of conversions. The Bill was, however, dropped at the behest of Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1960, a private member's bill, ``Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill'', aimed at checking the conversion of Hindus to ``non-Indian'' religions like Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism was introduced, but was rejected for ``its apparent affront on specific religious faiths.''

``No other attempt in this direction was made in Parliament until 1979 when a private member's Freedom of Religion Bill came up but it was also rejected. No further attempt has been made
in this direction in the past 20 years,'' he said.

Dr. Mahmood pointed out that though there was no specific law against conversion, there were certain central laws which effectively discouraged conversion from Hinduism to Christianity and Islam by
subjecting the converts to loss of material benefits. ``They also encourage re-conversion from these religions to Hinduism by offering material gains to re-converts. Among these is the Scheduled Caste
Law, which is prima facie a religion-based law and not one based on caste affiliation or socio- economic backwardness. The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, emphatically laid down
that any person who was not a Hindu could never be a member of the Scheduled Caste and was not, therefore, entitled to the benefits the SCs enjoy. The Hindu Succession Act also discourages
conversion by stating that if a Hindu coverts to Islam or Christianity and pre-deceases his father, children born to him after his conversion shall not inherit the estate of their Hindu grandfather.
If however, such a child reconverts to Hinduism during his grandfather's lifetime, he will
get a full share in the grandfather's property.''

Dr. Mahmood argued that in a sense, both the Scheduled Caste Law and the Hindu Succession Act offered inducement or allurement for sticking to Hinduism as also for converting or reconverting to
Hinduism from Christianity or Islam. On the other hand, conversion of a Hindu to Buddhism or Sikhism would have no implications under either of these laws. The need, if anything, was a more
level-playing field for all religions, he said.

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .