Orissa Freedom of Religion Act: The Christian conversion debate

Orissa Freedom of Religion Act: The conversion debate

Thu, Aug 28 02:40 AM

Last weekend, communal violence rocked Orissa after a group of masked gunmen killed VHP leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati (84), who was known for his campaign against conversion of tribals to Christianity. As the Christian community was attacked in the state, the alleged conversion of tribals in the its backward pockets was back in focus. It was the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, enacted in 1967, which sought to regulate forced or manipulative conversion. A look at the Act:

• The origin
Post-independence, Orissa was the first state to enact a law prohibiting conversion from one religion to another by using force, allurement, through inducements like gifts or gratification and grant of any benefit, either pecuniary or otherwise, or by fraudulent means. The Act was enacted in 1967 by the Rajendra Narayan Singhdeo government.

• What it says
Punishment pertaining to the violation of the Act makes one liable for imprisonment that may extend to one year, with or without fine, which may be up to Rs 5,000. The Act prohibited conversion of anyone under the age of 18. For conversions involving persons below the age of 18, a woman, or a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, the punishment was for two years and fine was up to Rs 10,000.

The offences will not be investigated by an officer below the rank of a police inspector. The prosecution has to be made with the sanction of the district magistrate. Under the Act, each district magistrate has to maintain a list of religious organisations propagating religious faith in the district. The district magistrate, if he thinks fit, may call for a list of persons receiving benefits either in cash or in kind from religious organisations or institutions or from any other person.

Any person intending to convert needs to give a declaration before a first class magistrate, prior to such conversion that he intends to do so on his own accord. The priest will have to intimate the date, time and place of the ceremony where conversion would take place, along with the names and addresses of the persons to be converted, to the concerned district magistrate 15 days prior to the said ceremony in a prescribed form. The district magistrate has to maintain a register of conversion and enter particulars of the intimation received by him. The district magistrate by the 10th of each month needs to send to the Government a report of intimations pertaining to such conversions.

• Its implementation
Though the law was enacted in 1967, it could not be implemented for the next 22 years due to the absence of Rules to support it. In 1989, the Orissa Freedom of Religion Rules was framed. The first case under the Act was registered in 1993 when a superintendent of police booked 21 pastors in Nowrangpur for breaking the law. The SP was transferred immediately.

• Interpretation of the Act
The minority communities have steadfastly opposed it claiming that such a legislation is aimed at restricting the right to propagate religion, guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.

In a prominent case challenging the validity of the Orissa Act, Chief Justice A N Ray in Reverend Stainislaus versus State of Madhya Pradesh (AIR 1977 SC 908) and Yulitha versus State of Orissa and others ruled that propagation is different from conversion. Adoption of a new religion is freedom of conscience, while conversion would impinge upon freedom of choice granted to all citizens alike. After examining the different meanings of the word “propagate” in Article 25(1), Justice Ray expressed the view that “what Article 25(1) grants is not the right to convert another person to one’s own religion by exposition of its tenets”.


1 Response to “Orissa Freedom of Religion Act: The Christian conversion debate”

  1. 1 Nich May 28, 2009 at 7:14 am

    “We did not convert because we are poor. If I am poor but accepted by my community, there is no [social] terror in that poverty…. We did not convert for money. We converted because of the society that saw us as lesser, not worthy. We were ‘lower caste’, ‘untouchable’, ‘lowly’. Now we are Christian. Our god wants us. We can walk into his temple. We are worthy. You understand?”

    Spoken by a Dalit convert in Orissa to Angana P Chatterji. Quoted in Ms Chatterji’s book: Violent Gods, p273

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