As Hindutva supporters claim that growing numbers of Hindus are adopting Islam and Christianity, several states have in recent months criminalised forcible conversions – though there is little evidence that this is happening on a large scale.

But it is not just Christians and Muslims who are alarmed by these new laws: Ambedkarites view the provisions in some statutes banning mass conversions as an attempt to suppress the practice of Dalits converting to Buddhism to protest against caste oppression.

“Hindus don’t convert to Islam or other religions en masse,” said Satish Prakash, a Dalit rights activist from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh. “But only Dalits are inclined to leave Hinduism en masse, and are willing to say so publicly.”

Sushil Gautam, president of the Blue Panthers – an organisation that works for the welfare of the Dalit community – said these laws “are an attempt to scare and discourage Dalits from converting away from Hinduism”.

Anti-conversion laws have long been on the books in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, and Rajasthan. But since Uttar Pradesh moved its Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance in 2020, even more states have introduced similar laws or amended existing ones to purportedly prevent “love jihad”.

“Love jihad” is a conspiracy theory spread by Hindutva workers claiming that Muslim men are marrying Hindu women solely to convert them to Islam.

This year, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttarakhand have passed or amended anti-conversion laws to criminalise mass conversions. Madhya Pradesh enacted a similar law last year.

People take vows after converting to Buddhism during a mass religious conversion ceremony in Nagpur on October 14, 2006. Credit: Reuters.

Stricter laws

In the most recent instance, the Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly on November 29 passed a bill amending its Freedom of Religion Act, 2018, to make the state’s anti-conversion law more stringent.

The amendment introduced “mass conversion” as an offence, attracting a prison term of three to 10 years, in addition to a fine of Rs 50,000. “Mass conversion” has been defined as conversions where the religion of two or more people is changed.

Under the new law passed in Karnataka in September, the conversion of two or more persons could lead to imprisonment for three to 10 years and a fine of Rs 1 lakh.

According to Madhya Pradesh’s Freedom of Religion Act, 2021, the punishment for mass conversions is five to 10 years in prison and a fine of Rs 1 lakh.

Some politicians and activists in Maharashtra, where for more than six decades people from the Dalit community have converted to other religions, especially Buddhism, have also been calling for anti-conversion laws.

Politics behind the laws

Architect of the Indian Constitution and anti-caste leader BR Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism in 1956, along with lakhs of Dalit followers. Dalits have since followed this path to register their protest against caste oppression and discrimination. They have embraced Christianity and Islam, but primarily Buddhism.

The Bharatiya Janata Party – which is in power in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand – has criticised mass conversions.

In October, the BJP accused the Aam Aadmi Party of hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus after Rajendra Pal Gautam, the social welfare minister in the Delhi government, attended a mass conversion event. Gautam had shared pictures of the event on his social media account, saying that 10,000 intellectuals had taken a pledge to create a caste-free and untouchability-free India by adopting the Buddhist faith.

He resigned from his post on October 9.

Rajendra Pal Gautam's post about attending the mass conversion event on October 5.

However, even some former BJP leaders from the Dalit community such as Savitri Bai Phule, have been involved in such mass conversion events. In 2018, when Phule was the Member of Parliament from Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh, about 10,000 Dalits had reportedly converted to Buddhism at an event she attended.

Two years later, when Uttar Pradesh had passed an ordinance in 2020 to criminalise mass conversions, Rajratna Ambedkar, the president of The Buddhist Society of India, had told Outlook that it was “an attempt to intimidate Dalits, particularly the Valmiki community, to ensure they don’t take part in any resistance programmes… They don’t want to give us an option to leave the Hindu fold.”

The anti-conversion ordinance, which the Uttar Pradesh government brought in with the stated intention of curbing “love jihad”, also has a provision against mass conversions. Ambedkarite and Dalit organisations had said the law was primarily meant to stamp out resistance among the state’s Dalits and prevent them from organising and participating in Buddhist conversion programmes.

Ambedkarite activists highlighted the fact that Uttar Pradesh’s Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, provides for a harsher punishment for mass conversions of individuals from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, women and minors, compared to other cases of unlawful individual conversions.

Justice (retired) Aditya Nath Mittal, the chair of Uttar Pradesh’s State Law Commission at that time, had told The Economic Times the state’s anti-conversion law considers that “mass conversions are often organised by people with a political design”.

Mittal said that mass conversions are based on misleading members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes with promises of a better life. “ “The whole point is to ensure people honour one another’s religion which can get defeated by such incidents of politically motivated conversions.”

BR Ambedkar at the ceremony in Nagpur where he renounced Hinduism in October 1956. Credit: Navayan, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

‘All a game’

Dalit activist Satish Prakash, who is also an associate professor at Meerut College, said that the implementation of recent laws against mass conversions was “all a game” by the BJP for political gains. “Dalits are more inclined to leave Hinduism en masse,” Prakash said. “The BJP wants to stop this, because it is scared.”

Prakash suggested that earlier, the BJP not moved such laws criminalising mass conversion because the party “did not want to scare Dalits directly as the community would react politically immediately”. But now that the BJP is in “full-fledged power”, antagonising Dalits will not hurt the party’s electoral prospects, Prakash argued.

Sushil Gautam of the Blue Panthers said the laws against mass conversion are in line with the attempt of the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to create a “Hindu rashtra”.

“Dalits, among other sections of the society such as Muslims and Sikhs, are seen by the BJP and the RSS as obstacles,” Gautam contended. “The RSS is scared today.”

However, Gautam said that the Dalit community, will not get discouraged by the laws and that their long battle to secure their rights and freedoms will continue.

Ashok Bharti, chairman of the National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations, said the laws against mass conversion will not discourage Dalits who wish to convert to Buddhism or any other religion. However, he added, “...mass conversions should not happen anyway as they are merely political stunts.”

Prabhakar Nisargandh, associate professor in sociology at Vijaysinha Yadav College in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur, said the laws against mass conversion are not only aimed at intimidating specific communities, but also to reflect the attempt of those in power to retain the caste system.

“Conversion is a fundamental right,” Nisargandh said. Those in power want to touch the very structure of the Constitution by questioning this fundamental right.”