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

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
30 August, 2017

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.

We have no quarrel with Christ or Mohammed or what they saw and said. We have all respect for them. To my mind, Vedic culture excludes nothing. Every philosophy and culture has its place but now the cry of religion is a dangerous cry. It denominates, it divides and encamps people to warring ways. In the present context what can this word “propagation” in article 19 mean? It can only mean paving the way for the complete annihilation of Hindu culture, the Hindu way of life and manners. Islam has declared its hostility to Hindu thought. Christianity has worked out the policy of peaceful penetration by the back-door on the outskirts of our social life. This is because Hinduism did not accept barricades for its protection. Hinduism is just an integrated vision and a philosophy of life and cosmos, expressed in organised society to live that philosophy in peace and amity. But Hindu generosity has been misused and politics has over run Hindu culture. Today religion in Indian serves no higher purpose than collecting ignorance, poverty and ambition under a banner that flies for fanaticism. The aim is political, for in the modern world all is power-politics and the inner man is lost in the dust. Let everybody live as he thinks best but let him not try to swell his number to demand the spoils of political warfare. Let us not raise the question of communal minorities anymore. It is a device to swallow the majority in the long run. This is intolerable and unjust.

Indeed in no constitution of the world right to propagate religion is a fundamental right and justiciable. The Irish Free State Constitution recognises the special position of the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens. We in India are shy of such recognition. USSR gives freedom of religious worship and freedom of anti-religious propaganda. Our Constitution gives the right even to propagate religion but does not give the right to any anti-religious propaganda.

If people should propagate their religion, let them do so. Only I crave, let not the Constitution put it as a fundamental right and encourage it. Fundamental rights are in alienable and once they are admitted, it will create bad blood. I therefore say, let us say nothing about rights relating to religion. Religion will take care of itself. Drop the word “propagate” in Article 19 at least. Civilisation is going headlong to the melting pot. Let us beware and try to survive.

Lakshmi Kanta Maitra: This Article 19 of the Draft Constitution confers on all person the right to profess, practise and propagate any religion they like but this right has been circumscribed by certain conditions, which the state would be free to impose in the interests of public morality, public order and public health and also insofar as the right conferred here does not conflict in any way with the other provisions elaborated under this part of the Constitution. Some of my friends argued that this right ought not to be permitted in this Draft Constitution for the simple reason that we have declared time and again that this is going to be a secular state and as such practice of religion should not be permitted as a fundamental right. It has been further argued that by conferring the additional right to propagate a particular faith or religion the door is opened for all manner of troubles and conflicts which would eventually paralyse the normal life of the State. I would say at once that this conception of a secular state is wholly wrong.

By secular state, as I understand it, is meant that the state is not going to make any discrimination whatsoever on the ground of religion or community against any person professing any particular form of religious faith. This means in essence that no particular religion in the state will receive any state patronage whatsoever. The state is not going to establish, patronise or endow any particular religion to the exclusion of or in preference to others, and that no citizen in the state will have any preferential treatment or will be discriminated against simply on the ground that he professed a particular form of religion. In other words, in the affairs of the state, the professing of any particular religion will not be taken into consideration at all. This I consider to be the essence of a secular state. At the same time we must be very careful to see that this land of ours we do not deny to anybody the right not only to profess or practise but also to propagate any particular religion.

I have listened to some of the speeches that have been made in connection with this article. It has been objected to and it has been said that the right to propagate should be taken away. One honourable member suggested that if we conceded the right, the bloody upheaval which this country has witnessed of late would again recur with full vehemence in the near future. I do not at all share that pessimism of my honourable friend. Apparently my honourable friend has not given special consideration to the conditions that are imposed in this article. The power that this article imposes upon the state to intervene on certain occasions completely demolishes all chances of that kind of cataclysm which we have seen.

It has also been said, and I am very sorry that an observation was made by an honourable member of considerable eminence and standing, that the Christian community in its proselytising zeal has sometimes transgressed its limits and has done acts which can never be justified. … I want to say that a good deal of injustice will be done to the great Christian community in India if we go away with that impression. The Indian Christian community happens to be the most inoffensive community in the whole of India. That is my personal opinion and I have never known anybody contesting that proposition. …The Christian community in India has not done that proselytising work with that amount of zeal and frenzy with which some of our friends have associated it. I am anxious to remove that misconception.

Propagation does not necessarily mean seeking converts by force of arms, by the sword, or by coercion. But why should obstacles stand in the way if by exposition, illustration and persuasion you could convey your own religious faith to others? I do not see any harm in it. And I do feel that this would be the very essence of our fundamental right, the right to profess and practise any particular religion. Therefore this right should not be taken away, in my opinion. If in this country the different religious faiths would go on expounding their religious tenets and doctrines, then probably a good deal of misconception prevailing in the minds of people about different religions would be removed, and probably a stage would be reached when by mutual understanding we could avoid in future all manner of conflicts that arise in the name of religion. From that point of view I am convinced that the word “propagate” should be there and should not be deleted.

L Krishnaswami Bharathi: Let me also, in this connection, remind the House that the matter was thoroughly discussed at all stages in the Minorities Committee, and they came to the conclusion that this great Christian community which is willing and ready to assimilate itself with the general community, which does not want reservation or other special privileges should be allowed to propagate its religion along with other religious communities in India.

K Santhanam: Sir, some discussion has taken place on the word “propagate.” After all, propagation is merely freedom of expression. I would like to point out that the word“convert”is not there. Mass conversion was a part of the activities of the Christian Missionaries in this country and great objection has been taken by the people to that. Those who drafted this Constitution have taken care to see that no unlimited right of conversion has been given. People have freedom of conscience and, if any man is converted voluntarily owing to freedom of conscience, then well and good. No restrictions can be placed against it. But if any attempt is made by one religious community or another to have mass conversions through undue influence either by money or by pressure or by other means, the state has every right to regulate such activity.

Therefore I submit to you that this article, as it is, is not so much an article ensuring freedom, but toleration—toleration for all, irrespective of the religious practice or profession. And this toleration is subject to public order, morality and health. Therefore this article has been very carefully drafted and the exceptions and qualifications are as important asthe right it confers. Therefore I think the article as it stands is entitled to our wholehearted support.

TT Krishnamachari: Sir, objection has been taken to the inclusion of the word “propagate” along with the words “profess and practice” in the matter of religion. Sir, it does not mean that this right to propagate one's religion is given to any particular community or to people who follow any particular religion. It is perfectly open to the Hindus and the Arya Samajists to carry on their Suddhi propaganda as it is open to the Christians, the Muslims, the Jains and the Bhuddists and to every other religionist, so long as he does it subject to public order, morality and the other conditions that have to be observed in any civilised government. So, it is not a question of taking away anybody’s rights. It is a question of conferring these rights on all the citizens and seeing that these rights are exercised in a manner which will not upset the economy of the country, which will not create disorder and which will not create undue conflict in the minds of the people. …

Sir, I know as a person who has studied for about 14 years in Christian institutions that no attempt had been made to convert me from my own faith and to practise Christianity. I am very well aware of the influences that Christianity has brought to bear upon our own ideals and our own outlook, and I am not prepared to say here that they should be prevented from propagating their religion. I would ask the house to look at the facts so far as the history of this type of conversion is concerned. It depends upon the way in which certain religionists and certain communities treat their less fortunate brethren.

The fact that many people in this country have embraced Christianity is due partly to the status that it gave to them. Why should we forget that particular fact? An untouchable who became a Christian became an equal in every matter along with the high-caste Hindu, and if we remove the need to obtain that particular advantage that he might probably get—it is undoubtedly a very important advantage, apart from the fact that he has faith in the religion itself—well, the incentive for anybody to become a Christian will not probably exist.

This is part of “The Argumentative Indians,” The Caravan’s series of excerpts from the Constituent Assembly Debates that reflect on subjects relevant to public discourse in the present day.