For poverty-struck, caste-oppressed individual, does religion matter?

None can be “forced” into conversion – because that does not mean anything. If force has indeed been used, the individual at the first opportunity will shrug off the so-called conversion and return to the original faith

Conversion, Karnataka, anti-conversion law, The Federal
In scores of instances, the poor and the starving have been lifted from their misery by proselytising groups from either Christianity or Islam. Representative photo: PTI (File)

The core argument of the Sangh Parivar, which has steered religious anti-conversion laws in various states, is that individuals are “lured” into changing their faith, which need to be stopped. The BJP-led Karnataka government’s anti-conversion legislation is the latest in this direction.

While conceding that the Indian Constitution under Article 25 gives an individual the right to follow and preach any religion of their choice, the state legislation following in the steps of nine states has sought to criminalise conversion done through purported inducement or force.

Questions have been raised in various forums over the legality of anti-conversion laws especially when the Constitution itself categorically allows the right to religious practice and propagation under Article 25.

Also read: Explained: Karnataka’s anti-conversion law, and its easy passage


The Karnataka anti-conversion legislation comes at a time when state agencies have openly backed the majoritarian agenda under the Hindutva umbrella and right-wing vigilante groups ideologically affiliated to the ruling Sangh Parivar have taken it upon themselves to intimidate and attack the Christian community. A report by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) recorded at least 39 cases of hate crimes against Christians last year in Karnataka. Many more may have gone undocumented, the report said.

Conversion, a deterrent or opportunity?

In the clamour for bringing in anti-conversion legislation, what has rarely been attempted is to question why an individual would want to convert from one religion to another. The immediate answer is they are being lured into doing so or, at worst, being forced to. Though courts have also stated that allurement, or enticement and the use of fraud or force to convert are unlawful, these expressions in the real world are extant in the grey area, open to a wide range of interpretation.

For example, if a poor Dalit student converts to Christianity and, by virtue of becoming a Christian, is now eligible for subsidies and other facilities enjoyed by many in the minority community in pursuit of their education in a missionary school, does this qualify as allurement?  Or should one see this as an opportunity for a poor student to continue studies and as a way out of poverty?

The proponents of anti-conversion may term this a coercion or fraud and initiate legal action, once the new law comes into force. But the point that is ignored is that the individual who has adopted Christianity has done so voluntarily as he/she sees this as an opportunity to get ahead in life.

It would be disingenuous to term this inducement as in the community the student belonged to before conversion, none may have come forward to similarly help the individual.

Further, none can be “forced” into conversion – because that does not mean anything.  If force has indeed been used, the individual at the first opportunity will shrug off the so-called conversion and return to their earlier faith. Or, the individual can use existing criminal laws to prosecute those involved in the fraud. It is next to impossible to indulge in forced conversion in a democratic society like India. The new anti-conversion legislation therefore is an exercise in wastefulness, with questions hanging over its real motive.

Last resort of the oppressed

As a recent Pew survey revealed, “the vast majority of former Hindus who are now Christian belong to Scheduled Castes (48 per cent), Scheduled Tribes (14 per cent) or Other Backward Classes (26 per cent)”.

The reasons for converting to another religion are compelling.  For example the Dalit community,  oppressed for centuries by so-called upper castes, was among the first to  convert to Buddhism – taking the cue from their iconic leader B R Ambedkar who adopted Buddhism in 1956.

Or, for that matter, conversion to Islam – with the mass conversions at Meenakshipuram in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu in 1981 regarded as a watershed moment in the history of conversions.

The reason obviously is that the marginalised have converted in the course of their quest for more respect and dignity in society.  What they were unable to get from their existing religion they sought that in Islam or Christianity.

In the Indian context, caste is not easily erased despite converting to Islam, Christianity or Buddhism. But it does fade. As the Pew study quoted earlier found, in 2019-20, some 47 per cent of Dalits who converted to Christianity said they had faced a “lot of discrimination” earlier.  Once they converted only 12 per cent of the converted Dalits said they “faced discrimination” in the period the survey was conducted.

A new beginning

Significantly, even the minimal discrimination that continues in some cases after conversion reduces over time. After a generation or two the original caste identity gets erased, eventually serving the original purpose of adopting the new religion.

Take the case of the mass conversion to Islam in Meenakshipuram in 1981. Twenty-six years later, media reports quoting Dalit leader Tirumavalavan said the community was faring well on the socio-economic front after conversion.  The families had come out of the stigma and discrimination forced on them by the caste system, he said.

The Hindu newspaper, in a 2017 report quoted him as saying, “Instead of the casteist slurs hurled at them, men of the converted families are addressed today as ‘bhai’ by others, which gives a sense of equality and dignity for them.”

Tirumavalavan, incidentally, was presenting his findings from a research he had undertaken in Meenakshipuram.

Also read: Karnataka takes ordinance route to implement anti-conversion law

In scores of instances, the poor and the starving have been lifted from their misery by proselytising groups from either Christianity or Islam. Looking solely from the convertee’s point of view, does it matter to an individual struggling with poverty and barely managing to survive what religion he or she belongs to?

If someone approaches a poverty-struck person with money or the wherewithal to stave off hunger why wouldn’t that individual opt for it?  After all, the original community to which that person belonged to was unable or refused to help.  A politically driven organisation like the Sangh Parivar may perceive this as an inducement, but others could see this as a way of rescuing an individual scouring leftover food on the streets for survival.

It is entirely possible that in the process, the individual may have adopted the community that helped him/her. When a large number of poor people resort to crime because they don’t see any other alternative to earn their next meal, wouldn’t it better for them to opt for a more peaceful method for survival, which could include conversion.

The materially well off and socially dominant will rarely convert as they don’t need to.  They will convert only if they are impressed by something in the other religion or their personal compulsion, like a relationship, will make them shift out of their religion.  The anti-conversion legislations frown upon such reasons as well.  Thus, any conversion can be attributed to inducement or force and a constitutionally given right is subverted using legislation.

The poor is the punching bag

What is incomprehensible is how does it matter to anyone else what an individual decides to do with his/her life?

If the proponents of Hindutva were really keen on preventing conversions, they could have addressed caste-based oppression and poverty, the root cause of much of the conversions. Once these are sorted out and a more genuinely egalitarian society emerges, conversions will automatically go down and no amount of inducement or allurement would be able to influence any individual, unless someone wants to convert voluntarily.

But attempting to set right social inequity and materially uplift large sections of Indian society is easier said than done.  The easier option, or a short-cut, is to intimidate those already suffering hunger and oppression from attempting to convert.  And, since the proponents led by the BJP are in power at the Centre and in various states, an all out effort has been mounted to stifle the legitimate right of an individual to convert in this country, even through legislation. Karnataka is the latest.

The anti-conversion legislation is bound to be legally challenged but given the excruciatingly slow pace in hearing cases, incalculable social damage is likely to be caused by the time the court gives its ruling.

Also read: Child rights body locks horns with TN govt over alleged conversions in Chennai school

Already, a video is in circulation in social media of vigilantes barging into a private home in Karnataka questioning the religious practices of the inhabitant family – in complete disregard of Constitutionally-guaranteed right to privacy and  the various freedoms Indian citizens are entitled to.

The religious lumpen only know too well that the state backs them and that there is no need to fear prosecution.