On May 1, 1947, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel moved the following clause for inclusion in the Constitution of the soon-to-be independent India: “Conversion from one religion to another brought about by coercion or undue influence shall not be recognised by law.”

Some 67 years later, Amit Shah, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which claims to be the inheritor of Patel’s ideological legacy, has dared the “so-called” secular parties to support a national law banning forcible conversions. Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organisation that Patel once banned, has gone a step further and demanded that a national law banning religious conversions altogether be passed by Parliament.

Patel ultimately withdrew the clause, and the Constituent Assembly that settled on the Constitution went so as far as to give every individual the right to propagate their religion. Charting how and why the Assembly arrived at this decision will be instructive in understanding how meeting the demands of Shah and Bhagwat will upset the delicate balance that the Constitution has maintained.

‘Forcible’ conversions

In the Constituent Assembly, the most vociferous proponent of a constitutional bar against conversions was Ananthasayanam Ayyangar, who argued “that a positive fundamental right must be established that no conversion shall be allowed, and if any occasion does arise like this, let the person concerned appear before a Judge and swear before him that he wishes to be converted”.

Supporting him was R V Dhulekar, who claimed that Hindus were under attack and an attempt was being made to diminish the Hindu community’s numerical strength. The sentiment was echoed by P R Thakur, who claimed that preachers of other religions “take advantage of the ignorance, extend all sorts of temptations and ultimately convert” people belonging to the depressed classes.

Despite initially introducing the clause, Patel recommended to the Assembly in August 1947 that there was no need for a constitutional bar against forced conversions. He informed the House that the Minorities Committee had decided that it was not necessary to provide for such a bar as it was already “illegal under the present law” to forcibly convert people.

Nevertheless, the conversion bogey reared its ugly head again in December 1948, when the Assembly was debating whether individuals should have the right to propagate their religion.

Why propagate religion?

Article 25 of the Constitution gives all persons the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion. This article was described as a charter for Hindu enslavement by Loknath Misra, who provocatively argued that “if Islam had not come to impose its will on this land, India would have been a perfectly secular State and a homogenous state”. Interestingly enough, shortly after he made this statement, the Assembly was adjourned early so that Muslim members could observe Friday prayers.

When the Assembly reconvened, Misra continued his tirade against Islam, a religion which he claimed had “declared its hostility to Hindu thought”. He did not spare Christianity either, which he accused of mastering “the policy of peaceful penetration by the backdoor on the outskirts of our social life”. By making the right to propagate a fundamental right, he believed that the Assembly was paving the way for the annihilation of Hindu culture.

Misra received support from Tajamul Hussain, the Muslim member from Bihar: “Supposing I honestly believe that I will attain salvation according to my way of thinking, and according to my religion, and you, Sir, honestly believe that you will attain salvation according to your way, then why should I ask you to attain salvation according to my way, or why should you ask me to attain salvation according to your way? If you accept this proposition, then, why propagate religion?”

Right to convert

It fell to KM Munshi, who had the unenviable task of steering Article 25 through the legislative process in the Assembly, to explain the significance of “propagation” to the Christian community and why the inclusion of the word in the Constitution was not fraught with dangerous consequences. “I know it was on this word that the Indian Christian community laid the greatest emphasis,” he said, “not because they wanted to convert people aggressively, but because the word ‘propagate’ was a fundamental part of their tenet.”

TT Krishnamachari, who had studied in Christian institutions for some 14 years, spoke of how no attempt had ever been made to convert him to the Christian faith. He implored the House to consider the historical and sociological context in which Hindus had converted to Christianity. He argued that people embraced Christianity primarily due to the manner in which the Christian faith treated its brethren:
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.

Krishnamachari made a final conciliatory pitch to the Assembly to allow individuals to propagate their religion “and to convert people, if he felt that it is a thing that he has to do and that is a thing for which he has been born and that is his duty towards his God and his community”. Munshi and Krishnamachari won the day, as the right to propagate religion became a fundamental right, with conversion by free exercise of the conscience being constitutionally guaranteed to this day.

Harmony and confidence

Munshi himself had moved an amendment in May 1947 that would have imposed a constitutional bar against conversions engineered by fraud, coercion or undue influence. But by December 1948, there had been a marked change in his attitude as he had been party to many of the compromises thrashed out with the leaders and organisations that represented the minorities.

He admitted that these negotiations “ultimately led to many of these clauses [pertaining to religious freedom] being inserted in the Constitution”. Munshi, who went on to join BJP’s predecessor the Jan Sangh and chaired the very first meeting of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, was no doubt still wary of forced conversions and the possibility of such conversions taking place as a result of the right to propagate being constitutionally guaranteed. Nevertheless, he urged the Assembly that the compromise achieved by the Minorities Committee “ought to be respected”.

Munshi believed that the inclusion of the word propagation had “created an atmosphere of harmony and confidence in the majority community”.

It is this harmony and confidence in the majority community that is at stake with the Sangh Parivar relentlessly pursuing a ban on conversions. The BJP-led government would do well to ignore such pleas and heed the advice of the Hindutva stalwart Munshi. If they choose not to, the hard-won confidence of the minority communities may be lost for the foreseeable future.