The Supreme Court’s rejection on Monday of a batch of pleas asking it not to consider a petition urging the top court to halt alleged “forced conversions” of Hindus to other religions is a reversal of its previous position on the matter.

On Monday, the court said religious conversion was a “serious issue”. “Don’t be so technical on maintainability,” the court said, adding that it is looking for a solution to “set things right”.

However, the Supreme Court as well as the Delhi High Court have in the last two years dismissed three similar pleas on “forced conversions” filed by the same petitioner – serial public interest litigator and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ashwini Upadhyay.

The applications in the Supreme Court challenging the maintainability of Upadhyay’s petition pointed to these previous dismissals. In one instance, the Supreme Court had also threatened to penalise Upadhyay by imposing a fine on him. Thus, they argued that the Supreme Court should not entertain the present petition either. The Supreme Court, however, not only dismissed these applications but also seemed keen to expedite the hearings.

The case till now

In his plea, Upadhyay claimed that the Hindu population in India had declined from 86% in 2001 to 79% in 2011. If this trend continued, the petition declared, “Hindus shall gradually become a minority” in India.

In reality, Census figures show that while the proportion of Hindus dropped from 80.5% of the population in 2001 to 78.5% in 2011, the absolute number of Hindus rose by 14.5% from 82.8 crore to 94.8 crore during the period.

A Supreme Court bench headed by Justice MR Shah is hearing Upadhyay’s petition.

Upadhyay has asked the court to declare that these alleged forced conversions – effected by intimidation, threat, allurement or fraud, as he claims – violate the fundamental rights of citizens. He has also asked the court to direct Union and state governments to control such conversions or to ask the Law Commission to prepare a report and draft a law against this.

Upadhyay filed his petition in January. The Supreme Court in September listed the matter for hearing and sent a notice to the Centre to respond to the claims raised by Upadhyay. On November 14, the apex court said that the allegations in the petition, if true, raise a “very serious issue” and could impact the “security of the nation”. This also infringes on “citizens’ right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion” under Article 25 of the Constitution, it said.

When the lawyer for the petitioner requested the Supreme Court to ask all the states to submit information on steps they had taken to curb “forced conversions”, the bench said that would delay proceedings. Instead, it asked the Union government to file a detailed response.

The challenges

Since the last week of November, at least three applications have been filed arguing that the Supreme Court should not entertain Upadhyay’s petition. These have been filed by a person who said he had converted from Hinduism to Christianity by exercising his “fundamental right to convert to another faith”; a rationalist organisation called the Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham; and the Coimbatore Diocese of Presbyter of Churches of South India.

The crux of their arguments is that Upadhyay had filed similar petitions that were not accepted by the courts in the past, leading him to withdraw these petitions. They also alleged that the claims made in his petition are not backed by evidence.

“This petition is therefore purely for political motive and hence used more as a publicity interest litigation,” one applicant alleged.

Another applicant said Upadhyay had suppressed facts before the Supreme Court. According to the applicant, Upadhyay had not disclosed the fact that he had filed a similar petition before the Delhi High Court in 2020. The applicant also stated that Upadhyay had misrepresented the situation by claiming to have filed the present petition since the government had not responded to a letter he sent on forced conversions.

Upadhyay claimed he sent the letter to the government after taking the permission of the Supreme Court to do so, while withdrawing his previous petition. However, the applicant pointed out that the court had never given Upadhyay this permission and had only asked him to withdraw his plea.

These arguments, however, were not accepted by the Supreme Court when it heard the matter on Monday.

The three petitions

In March 2020, Upadhyay had approached the Delhi High Court with a similar plea and asked the court to “take appropriate steps” to control “forced conversions”. The Delhi High Court refused to entertain the petition: “it is one’s personal choice to follow whatever religion” they want to, it noted. Upadhyay eventually withdrew his plea.

In March 2021, Upadhyay approached the Supreme Court alleging that instances of “forced conversions” were “reported every week throughout the country”, claiming that Christian groups were carrying out mass conversions. However, the Supreme Court said that the petition had been filed for “publicity” and warned that it would impose “heavy costs” if the matter was argued further.

The court also made oral observations about how a person above 18 years of age should have the freedom to choose their religion. Upadhyay withdrew this petition too.

In January, Upadhyay filed a third petition in the Supreme Court. This is the one that is being heard. In June, however, before this third petition was taken up for hearing by the Supreme Court, Upadhyay had filed a similar petition in the Delhi High Court.

When the petition came up for hearing, the Delhi High Court refused to issue notice to the government and said that it seemed to be based entirely on information from WhatsApp, social media and the newspapers. The court said that this could not form the basis of a petition and asked Upadhyay to cite credible evidence.

Though Upadhyay filed an affidavit with additional material, he withdrew the petition in the Delhi High Court on November 21, by which time the Supreme Court had accepted his other similar petition.

Differences in petitions? examined the four petitions filed by Upadhyay. All the examples of conversions in the petition filed before the Delhi High Court, which had rebuked the petitioner for relying on uncorroborated information, appear in the petition now being heard by the Supreme Court.

The petitioner has also submitted before the Supreme Court that “the evidence of deceitful religious conversion can be accessed through social media, primarily on YouTube and Facebook”. However, in June, the Delhi High Court had told Upadhyay that information available on social media was not adequate evidence.

In the petition being currently heard by the Supreme Court, Upadhyay has made several allegations of Hindus being converted, which do not appear in the Delhi High Court petition that was filed five months later.

These allegations include the “forced conversions” of school children in Christian schools in two districts of Madhya Pradesh. He also claimed that a schoolboy in Tamil Nadu had been beaten by his teacher for wearing a “rudrakasha”, or a religious locket, and that a Catholic school in Madhya Pradesh had forced students to read the Bible.

However, when news channel NDTV fact-checked the claims made in Upadhyay’s petition, it found that they were based on “media reports from right-wing sources or unsourced claims”. Some of these claims were found to be false, it added.

For instance, on the allegations of conversion at Christian schools in two districts of Madhya Pradesh, NDTV said that “media reports found glaring holes in the claim of forcible conversions”. In one district, the children in question were already Christians.

Further, the channel also pointed out that the claimed examples of religious discrimination in the petition did not show forced conversion in any way, which was the focal point of Upadhyay’s plea. When the channel questioned Upadhyay further on the matter, he refused to answer and walked away.

The Supreme Court will now hear the matter next on December 12.