//Ambedkar and the call to conversion!

Ambedkar and the call to conversion!

By Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ

Come 14 April, and the nation will gratefully remember Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar who was born on this day in 1891, one hundred and thirty years ago! He was a polymath and civil rights activist who contributed immensely  to the nation:  among others , as the Father of the Constituent Assembly, as the one who conceptualised the Reserve Bank of India and above all, as a social reformer who was known for his campaigns against the social discrimination which oppressed the Dalits, women and labour.

One fact that the nation should not forget (particularly the Governments of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat with their newly-minted ‘forced conversion’ laws) is that one of the greatest acts of this versatile Indian was his clear, loud and unequivocal call to conversion!

As early as 1935, Ambedkar made the most daring and path-breaking speech of his career, announcing that, because of the intransigence of the Hindus and the failure of a decade of nonviolent protests, he had decided to abandon Hinduism and to seek another faith. He urged the leaders at the Yeola Depressed Classes conference to consider their religious identity a choice, not a fact of destiny. In a highly emotional voice he said,

If you want to gain self-respect, change your religion.
If you want to create a cooperating society, change your religion. If you want power, change your religion.
If you want equality, change your religion.
If you want independence, change your religion.
If you want to make the world in which you live happy, change your religion”

About twenty years later on 14 October 1956 (apparently the date on which King Ashoka became a Buddhist) Ambedkar together with his wife and at least 365,000 of his followers, mainly Dalits, decided to exit Hinduism and embrace Buddhism. Ambedkar was disgusted with the caste system in the Hindu society and the deep-rooted hatred of the upper caste Hindus towards the lower caste Hindus. For several years, he had pleaded with political leaders, freedom fighters, and social reformers, and men of letters, administrators to end the discriminatory and obnoxious system. He also launched several agitations against social evils and against the atrocities perpetuated on the lower castes by the higher castes.  His incessant cries fell on deaf ears. Nobody listed to him, no one cared!!

Ambedkar had no alternative but to get out of a system that was throttling him and millions of Dalits all over the country. He pondered on the possibility of embracing Islam or Christianity; however, he finally decided on Buddhism because he was convinced that within the Buddhist fold the Dalits would enjoy greater dignity, equity and respect. His conversion was indeed a watershed moment when Dalits in the country got a more meaningful identity and a voice that would now be heard; for centuries, their identity as human beings was trampled upon by the four-fold varna system dominating Hinduism.

Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism was not born of fantasy nor was it a sudden overnight decision. Apparently he had spent over twenty years studying various religions and discerning which one would be most suited for him and the down-trodden masses for whom he spoke. Addressing a huge gathering of Mahars in Bombay in May 1936, he openly spoke out his ideas on conversion and why he considered it to be the best and only route towards emancipation. He unequivocally stated, “I tell you all very specifically, religion is for man and not man for religion; to get human treatment, convert yourselves”

If Ambedkar were alive  and in Gujarat today, he and his followers would have been hauled up , fined and imprisoned  under the provisions of the  amendments of the ‘Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act’ which was passed by the Gujarat State Assembly on 1 April 2021 amidst strong protests from the Opposition members. Were it not for the fact that the original act of 2003 and its present amendments are blatantly violative of the Constitution, some of the provisions are so ridiculous that they could lead to tears of laughter. For example, ‘The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill’ state that, “there are episodes of religious conversion promising better lifestyle, divine blessings and impersonation. There is an emerging trend in which women are lured to marriage for the purpose of religious conversion.” In that speech in Bombay, Ambedkar said that  Hinduism had failed to secure basic human rights emphasising that, “Hindu society does not give equality of treatment, but the same is easily achieved by conversion.” So how would the Government of Gujarat deal with an Ambedkar today who openly states, “to get human treatment, convert yourselves”?

One needs to revisit the ‘Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003’, which was passed by the Gujarat Assembly on 26 March 2003; at that time, the entire Opposition walked out. However, it took full five years till 2008, for the Gujarat Government to frame the necessary rules.

The law is easily one of the most draconian ones in the history of any democracy in the world and was piloted by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi who is currently the Prime Minister of India! During his election campaign in 2002, he singled out Muslims and Christians and promised to bring in an anti-conversion law, which he did so

The provisions of the 2003 law include the following:

  • it prohibits forcible conversion by allurement or fraudulent means. ‘Allurement’ is defined as “any gift or grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise”. ‘Force’ is defined as “show of force or a threat of injury of any kind, including threat of divine displeasure or social ex-communication”. ‘Fraudulent means’ is defined as “misrepresentation of any other fraudulent contrivance”.
  • it provides for punishment of those who seek to forcibly convert for a period up to three years imprisonment and a fine up to Rs.50,000.  but if the person being forcibly converted is a “minor, a woman, or a person belonging to scheduled caste or scheduled tribe”, the punishment is for a term of up to four years imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 1 lakh
  • anyone seeking to convert someone from one religion to another, either by performing a ceremony as a religious priest, or takes part directly or indirectly in the ceremony, shall have to take prior permission from the district magistrate  (a civil authority) through a prescribed format
  • the person who is sought to be converted shall have to intimate the district magistrate about the ceremony within a prescribed period, to be laid down in the rules.  In case of default, the converted shall face upto one year imprisonment or a fine of Rs.1,000 or both

The Act at that time was clearly aimed at the minorities of the State particularly the Muslims and Christians. In fact there were attempts in subsequent amendments to say that one can convert, without permission and the possibility of punishment,  to Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism since these religions belong to the  ‘Hindu fold’. The Government had to hastily withdraw these attempts because of huge protests from leaders and representatives of these religions. The proponents of this warped idea, were certainly not educated enough to realise that all three are Protestant Religions: Sikhism is monotheistic (drawing many elements from Islam); whereas Buddhism and Jainism are a-theistic and in their theology they do not worship the pantheon of Gods of Hinduism. With that same perverted logic that withdrawn amendment said that no permission was needed for a Catholic to become a Protestant and vice-versa.

In February 2006, in keeping with letter and spirit of his anti-Constitutional law, at a Shabri Kumbh (a mass gathering of Hindus) programme in the Dangs (supported by the Gujarat Government), Modi warned the Christians “It is my constitutional duty to prevent conversions.  Our Constitution disapproves of them, and yet some people turn a blind eye.” Morari Bapu accused the Christians of bringing in plane-loads of missionaries from the Vatican “who come here to carry out conversion activities but when we organise a ‘ghar wapsi’ why should it be termed as bad?”  Both Modi and Morari Bapu also clearly endorsed the ‘ghar wapsi’ programmes which were part of that programme. In 2009, the constitutional validity of this law was challenged in the Gujarat High Court by the Gujarat United Christian Forum for Human Rights and others. A notice was sent to the Government to respond, they did not do so because they did not have a legitimate response and the courage to do so. The petitioners later withdrew their petition with an intention of making it stronger.

The point is not whether one has the right ‘to convert another’, but whether a citizen of India, has the right to choose a religion of one’s choice. Article 25 of  the Constitution of India guarantees the freedom of conscience, the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion to all citizens and Article 18 of theUniversal Declaration of Human Rights (of which India is a signatory) asserts that  “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”. Does one need more!

At this juncture, the questions one needs to ask are: if two mature consenting adults would like to marry, what right has the State to stop them from doing so? Then, if a Dalit girl wants to embrace Buddhism , since  it is the religion of her husband and could lead  to enhancing the quality of her life(Ambedkar made this so obvious!),  does she have the right to do so? Or for that matter, if a Christian girl wants to freely embrace Islam after marrying a Muslim, does she also have the right to do so? Why should the State (with its brutal mechanism and vigilantes) or anyone else, interfere in matters which are personal and private and clearly violative of Article 21: the right to privacy. On 24 August 2017, the Supreme Court of India in a historic judgement declared the right to privacy as a fundamental right, protected under the Indian Constitution. In declaring that this right stems from the fundamental right to life and liberty, the Court’s decision has far-reaching consequences for every citizen.

Whilst piloting the Bill on April 1, the Home Minister of Gujarat Pradipsinh Jadeja, did not try to hide the communal intent of the Gujarat Government saying, “Our Government will never forgive the Jihadi elements who abuse our daughters. Love Jihad is not our political agenda but it is our pain and our Government is determined to take strict action by converting this pain into the system”. In a manner which has come to characterise the mindset of the ruling regime Jadeja added that love jihad was a ploy of Muslim countries to control India and attack the social fabric of the country.

The Gujarat amendments on April 1 were no ‘April fool’ jokes! They were real, draconian and anti-co0nstitutional! Referred to now as the ‘Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2021’ it provides more stringent punishment against forced religious conversions through marriage. The new law has provision for three to ten years in jail and a fine of up to five lakh rupees if the accused is found guilty. The Bill amends the 2003 Act and seeks to curb the emerging trend in which women are lured to marriage for the purpose of religious conversion. Though there are other ‘States with ‘anti-conversion’ laws Gujarat is the fourth State(in these recent months) to have a law on so-called ‘forced’ conversion, after Uttar Pradesh , Madhya Pradesh and  Himachal Pradesh( the Citizens for Justice and Peace have challenged the constitutional validity of these in the Supreme Court)

The key amendments in the ‘Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2021’ include:

  • The original act of 2003 specified only two categories of allurement or offer of temptation (under Section 2 of the Act):-Any gift or gratification, either in cash or kind, and a grant of any material benefit, monetary or otherwise
     However, the amendment bill proposes a third category

            “better lifestyle, divine blessings or otherwise”.

  • Insertion of new Section 3A on Lodging of Complaint:

          Any aggrieved person, his parents, brother, sister or any other person related by blood,

          marriage or adoption may lodge a first information report with the police station

           having jurisdiction against the person

  • Insertion of new section 4A for Punishment for contravention of provisions Section 3 in case of marriage by unlawful conversion

Notwithstanding anything contained in Section 4, whoever contravenes the provisions of Section 3, insofar as conversion by marriage or by getting a person married shall be punished with imprisonment which shall not be less than 3 years but which may extend to 5 years and shall also be liable to fine which shall not less than Rs. Two lakh

  • Insertion of new section 4B on Marriage by unlawful conversion

         Any marriage which is done for the purpose of unlawful conversion by the person of

         one religion with the person of another religion, either by converting himself/herself

         before or after marriage shall be declared void by the Family Court or where the

         Family Court is not established by the Court having jurisdiction to try such cases.

  • Section 4 (C), if any institution or organisation is found contravening the law,

then every person who was in charge or was responsible for violation of law could be punished for imprisonment for three years (may extend up to 10 years) in jail and a fine of up to ₹5 lakh can be imposed.

  • Insertion of section 6A on Burden of Proof

The burden of proof as to whether a religious conversion was not effected through misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement, or by any fraudulent means or by marriage shall lie on the person who has caused the conversion and, where such conversion has been facilitated by any person by act, omission, aid, abetment or counselling, on such other person.

  • Offences to Be Cognizable and Non Bailable in Section 7

 The offences under the Act have been made Cognizable and Non Bailable and they will be investigated only by an officer who isn’t below the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police

There are several points both in the original Act of 2003 and the recent amendments, which are not only contentious but blatantly unconstitutional. For example the point of ‘better lifestyle, divine blessings or otherwise’: this certainly has far-reaching implications and can have a whole range of interpretations. Let’s talk about ‘better lifestyle’: who decides what is a so-called ‘better lifestyle’? Take the instance of a person whose original religion  dictated plenty of  fast and penance–now s/he embraces a religion which say, allows eating plenty and perhaps a different type of food and also with less rigorous penance ; all of this makes the ‘converter’ a happier person–could this be interpreted as a ‘better lifestyle?’

Then there is the aspect of ‘divine blessing’; for centuries, people from all walks of life have been invoking God’s blessings on each other! So does it now mean that in Gujarat we can no longer say “God bless you!” or invoke God’s blessings (or divine intervention) on another for whatever the reason? Strange indeed! Then comes the whole dimension of preaching: the sermons and homilies that Christian priests, religious and catechists give all the time. One speaks about ‘heaven’, ‘eternal life’, ‘finding peace in God’ and so on – does all this contravene the newly amended law? The opposite is ‘divine displeasure’ which may come under this ambit : can one say that one may go to ‘hell’ if one does not obey the commandments of God or maybe even embrace a particular religion? The icing on the cake is the word ‘otherwise’ – what does it mean legally , is it tenable or does one leave it to the whims and fancies of the so-called interpreter and judge of the law?

Any informed and concerned citizen, knows that there are ample provisions  in the CrPC to deal with anything to do with force and fraud, bribery and corruption, threat and kidnap – why are these not being used to deal with say the myth of ‘love jihad’ ? On the other hand, why are these not being used against our high and mighty politicians and other vested interests? They have made promises galore, cheated the poor and the marginalised of what is rightfully theirs and looted the nation. Many of them should have been imprisoned for life, long ago!

The Gujarat Freedom of Religion law is clearly reflective of a patriarchal and prejudiced mindset. Some of the sections in the amended law like the ‘offfences to be cognizable and non-bailable’ seem to taken  right out from the  draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).The people of India, are certainly experiencing difficult days under a fascist regime! This law needs to be protested because of its unconstitutionality. It must be withdrawn ‘in toto’ , immediately!

The above provisions are against democratic tenets, the nation’s secular fabric and the fundamental rights of citizens. It reveals the mindset of a fascist regime that is clearly afraid that a thinking and discerning citizenry will expose their hegemony on the poor and marginalised, the Dalits and Adivasis of the country. The Governor of Gujarat has not yet given his assent (he will surely do so) to these draconian amendments; after that the Government will have to frame the rules for this Law.

Addressing a public gathering on the 2003 Gujarat Law at the Nehru Centre in London on 11 June 2003, eminent Jurist and former Solicitor General of India, Mr. Soli Sorabjee hit the nail on the head saying, “The Gujarat legislation goes one step further and provides that the person who is converted has also to seek permission from the District Magistrate about the fact of such conversion. Failure to comply with these statutory provisions invites severe punishment of imprisonment and fine. These provisions are objectionable. They intrude on a person’s right to privacy. One’s religious belief is essentially a private matter as is conversion from one’s religion to another. It is a result of deep seated inner convictions. The State laws have the effect of deterring genuine conversions and impairing the substance of religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. These laws have further shaken the confidence of the minority communities and accentuated their sense of insecurity.”

In a landmark judgement on 9 April, the Supreme Court asserted that any individual above the age of eighteen years is free to choose their own religion. A three-member bench headed by Justice Rohinton F. Nariman said people have a right under the Constitution to freely profess, practise and propagate religion. The order lashed out at a “very, very harmful kind” of “public interest” petition claiming there is mass religious conversion happening “by hook or by crook” across the country. Justice Nariman asked the   petitioner “Why do you think there is the word ‘propagate’ in the Constitution?’” Further saying that said every person is the final judge of their own choice of religion or who their life partner should be. Courts cannot sit in judgment of a person’s choice of religion or life partner. Religious faith is a part of the fundamental right to privacy. He also reminded the petitioner of the Constitution Bench judgment which upheld inviolability of the right to privacy, equating it with the rights to life, of dignity and liberty. Justice Nariman further  said if left up to him, the Supreme Court’s decision of 1977 in the Rev. Stanislaus vs State Of Madhya Pradesh (1977)was wrong and the word “propagate” was there in the Constitution for a reason(in that case a Constitution bench held that the right to propagate did not include the right to convert under Article 25 of the Constitution).

Based on Nariman’s recent judgement, it is left to be seen if the Supreme Court can do a suo motu and ensure a full Constitution bench to review not only the  ‘Stanislaus judgment’ but also all the anti-conversion laws and the recent ‘forced conversion’ laws. The Supreme Court has within its powers to bring the four BJP Governments of UP, MP, HP and Gujarat to book and strike down as unconstitutional the ‘forced conversion’ laws of these four States.

On 14 April and the days after, we all need to resonate with Ambedkar’s call to conversion. It was a call to ALL Indians, then and now to defy and protest against anything unconstitutional; to openly propagate the right to convert to justice, liberty, equality and fraternity and to the religion of one’s choice!

(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer.  Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)