Not Ensuring Freedom, but Toleration: The Constituent Assembly Discusses the Fundamental Right to Propagate a Religion

30 August 2017
On 6 December 1948, the Constituent Assembly discussed the issue of conversions by Christian missionaries, while debating amendments to the freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution.
Popperfoto/Getty Images
On 6 December 1948, the Constituent Assembly discussed the issue of conversions by Christian missionaries, while debating amendments to the freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution.
Popperfoto/Getty Images

On 12 August, the Jharkhand legislative assembly passed the Religious Freedom Bill, 2017, amid demands from the opposition parties to send the bill to a select committee. The bill, which was brought by the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state, mandates that any person converting willingly to a religion must inform the deputy commissioner of the time and place of the conversion, and identify the person who will administer the proceedings. It imposes a punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs 50,000 for conversions due to “force, allurement, inducement, or fraud.” In cases of the conversion of a minor, woman, or person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, the bill increases the imprisonment to four years and the fine to Rs 1 lakh.

The main opposition party the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the Congress party, and several Christian organisations in the state have submitted memoranda to the governor, requesting that she not give her assent to the bill. Among other grounds, these memoranda argue that prohibitions on forced conversions exist in the Indian Penal Code, that the bill is “aimed at harassing the church and missionaries,” and that it is against the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

On 6 December 1948, the Constituent Assembly discussed the specific issue of conversions by Christian missionaries, while debating amendments to the freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Constitution, which was Article 19 in the Draft Constitution. The article grants individuals the “freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.” The following is an extract from the debate in the assembly, on the inclusion of the word “propagate” in the article—Lokanath Misra expressed his concern that its inclusion would lead to the “complete annihilation of Hindu culture” due to the “peaceful penetration” of Christianity. Various other members dissented—they insisted that the right to propagate a religion was granted to persons from all communities, that a voluntary conversion was an exercise of an individual's freedom of conscience, and that citizens who are driven to convert must retain the right to do so.

Lokanath Misra: Gradually it seems to me that our secular state is a slippery phrase, a device to by-pass the ancient culture of the land. The absurdity of this position is now manifest in articles 19 to 22 [Articles 25 to 28 of the Constitution of India] of the Draft Constitution. Do we really believe that religion can be divorced from life, or is it our belief that in the midst of many religions we cannot decide which one to accept? If religion is beyond the ken of our state, let us clearly say so and delete all reference to rights relating to religion. If we find it necessary, let us be brave enough and say what it should be.

But this unjust generosity of tabooing religion and yet making propagation of religion a fundamental right is somewhat uncanny and dangerous. Justice demands that the ancient faith and culture of the land should be given a fair deal, if not restored to its legitimate place after a thousand years of suppression.

Keywords: religious minorities freedom of expression Constituent Assembly Debates secularism freedom of religion
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