A secular state of any maturity does not have a judiciary repeatedly ruling on matters associated with religion. The number of cases, from Ayodhya to cow slaughter, from the Best Bakery massacre to the right to conversion, that the higher courts are now dealing with is an alarming indicator of a change in India’s secular atmosphere. The debate on the bringing of a uniform civil code is a symptom of the complicated relationship between civil society and religion-based communities in India, a relationship that is one outcome of the country’s recent history and the twist that has been given to politics by the rise of Hindutva and fragmented vote banks. It has been left to the Supreme Court to rule that conversion is not a fundamental right. In other words, the freedom to propagate a religion does not imply the freedom to convert others. What is being condemned is inducement, force or “fraud”. Common sense would have been adequate for this conclusion. But these are not normal times. The suspicion between communities, repeated violence, the focus on conversion as an incursion of a “foreign” faith, the ridiculous invention of “reconversions” by the Hindutva parties have all made conversion an issue big enough to be brought up in court.
The Supreme Court ruling was made in order to dismiss a petition challenging an Orissa law requiring police verification of all religious conversions. The court has said that regarding the issue of converting others, the government can impose some restrictions keeping in view public order. While converting others certainly cannot be a fundamental right — such an expectation smacks of a religious state — an equal freedom of conscience for all would allow an individual to opt for another religion of his own free will. Police verification for the sake of “public order” would imply an excessive presence of the state in a private matter and in a non-criminal sphere. Conversions by force, inducement, or fraud would doubtless be a grave offence. But it is not clear what margin is being left for voluntary change of faith undertaken without any of these driving impulses, or even without the desire to take advantage of different marriage or property laws. There is no reason to believe that such conversions do not happen. The focus on religion and the association of freedom with religion have the negative effect of narrowing down the whole concept of the freedom of conscience. Perhaps that is the most dangerous outcome of compelling the courts to consider these questions. A religion-centred consciousness in India still has the potential to undermine the secular conscience.