Hindus in Gujarat who wish to undergo religious conversion to Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism will need to seek their district magistrate’s prior approval under provisions of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, the state home department said in a circular on Monday, reported The Indian Express on Thursday.

The circular said that Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism were distinct from the Hindu religion as per the Act. It also claimed that district magistrates were not processing applications for conversion to Buddhism in compliance with the Act.

“Representations are being received from applicants and autonomous bodies that for religious conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism, prior permission is not required,” read the circular, signed by Deputy Secretary (Home) Vijay Badheka, according to The Indian Express.

Badheka pointed out that some officers were disposing of applications on grounds that “under Article 25(2) of the Constitution, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism are included within Hinduism and so the applicant is not required to take permission” for such conversions.

The circular said that such replies could lead to litigation and clarified that as per the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, “the person who is getting another to convert from Hinduism to Buddhism/Sikhism/Jainism will have to take prior permission of the district magistrate in a prescribed format”.

District magistrates, on the other hand, were directed to decide on religious conversion applications only after a detailed study of the governing legal provisions, and in step with the state government’s instructions.

Gujarat has seen several mass conversion events in recent years where people belonging mostly to Dalit communities have embraced Buddhism, reported The Indian Express.

In October, nearly 400 Hindus converted to Buddhism at an event organised by Gujarat Buddhist Academy in Ahmedabad on Dussehra. In April 2023, nearly 50,000 Dalits and Adivasis had converted to Buddhism to mark the 132nd birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution and an anti-caste leader, reported The New Indian Express.

Ramesh Banker, the secretary of the Gujarat Buddhist Academy, welcomed the government’s circular, which he cited as evidence of Buddhism being a separate religion that had “nothing to do with Hinduism”.

“We believed from the beginning that Buddhism is not a part of Hinduism and for conversion to Buddhism, prior permission of the district magistrate is mandatory,” Banker said. “It was our demand [that such a clarification be issued], which has been fulfilled. In our conversion events, we have always followed procedure.”