Freedom of religion in India

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Freedom of religion in India is a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 25-28 of the Constitution of India.[1] Modern India came into existence in 1947 and the Indian constitution's preamble was amended in 1976 to state that India is a secular state.[2] Every citizen of India has a right to practice and promote their religion peacefully. However, there have been numerous incidents of religious intolerance that resulted in riots and violence, notably, the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots in Delhi,1990 Anti-Hindu riots in Kashmir, 2002 Gujarat riots and the 2008 Anti-Christian riots. Some perpetrators of the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots in Delhi have not been brought to justice despite widespread condemnation.[3][4][5][6]

India is one of the most diverse nations in terms of religion, it being the birthplace of four major world religions: Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Even though Hindus form close to 80 percent of the population, India also has region-specific religious practices: for instance, Jammu and Kashmir has a Muslim majority, Punjab has a Sikh majority, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram have Christian majorities and the Indian Himalayan States such as Sikkim and Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and the state of Maharashtra and the Darjeeling District of West Bengal have large concentrations of Buddhist population. The country has significant Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist, Jain and Zoroastrian populations. Islam is the largest minority religion in India, and the Indian Muslims form the third largest Muslim population in the world, accounting for over 14 percent of the nation's population.

Rajni Kothari, founder of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies has written, "India is a country built on the foundations of a civilisation that is fundamentally tolerant."[7]


Tradition of religious freedom

The plural nature of Indian society in the 3rd century BC was encapsulated in an inscription of Ashoka:

King Piyadasi (Ashoka) dear to the Gods, honours all sects, the ascetics (hermits) or those who dwell at home, he honours them with charity and in other ways. But the King, dear to the Gods, attributes less importance to this charity and these honours than to the vow of seeing the reign of virtues, which constitutes the essential part of them. For all these virtues there is a common source, modesty of speech. That is to say, One must not exalt ones creed discrediting all others, nor must one degrade these others Without legitimate reasons. One must, on the contrary, render to other creeds the honour befitting them.

Emperor Kharvela (born in the family of Rajarshi Vasu) declares himself in his inscription (approximately 2nd century BCE):[8]

sava pasa-nd-a-puujako, sava devaayatan-sanskaarako

I am worshipper of all sects, restorer of all shrines.

Kharvela's self-description must be contrasted with other rulers around the world, who took pride in calling themselves "but-shikan" or "defender of the (only true) faith".

Badayuni in his Muntakhab-ut-Tawáríkh reports that the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who had established the Din-i-Ilahi faith, decreed the following in AH 1000 (1551–1552 CE):

Hindus who, when young, had from pressure become Musalmans, were allowed to go back to the faith of their fathers. No man should be interfered with on account of his religion, and every one should be allowed to change his religion, if he liked. ...People should not be molested, if they wished to build churches and prayer rooms, or idol temples, or fire temples.

The Sikh Gurus built freedom of religion in their faith to such an extent that while being a persecuted minority themselves under many Mughal rulers like Aurangzeb, Sikhs felt obliged to fight for the religious freedom of others. The sixth Guru of Sikhs, Guru Hargobind, even had a mosque built for his Muslim disciples, instead of putting them under any pressure to adopt the Sikh faith.[9] The tradition of religious freedom continued under Sikh Empire, and other Sikh Principalities where Sikh rulers commissioned several Gurdwaras, Temples and Mosques for their subjects of various faiths.

Refuge from religious persecution

India, with its traditional tolerance, has served as a refuge for groups that have encountered persecution elsewhere.

  • Jews: Jews in India were granted lands and trading rights. The oldest of the three longest-established Jewish communities in India, traders from Judea and Israel arrived in the city of Cochin, in what is now Kerala, 2,500 years ago and are now known as Cochin Jews. According to recordings by Jews, the date of the first arrival is given at 562 BC. In 68 AD, more Jews fled to Kerala to escape attacks by the Romans on Jerusalem.
  • Christians: Christianity is believed to have come to India in the 1st century through Saint Thomas who formed the Saint Thomas Christians in Kerala. Later in the 15th and 16th centuries European Missionaries brought in Christianity in places such as Goa and Mangalore. Protestant Missionaries came in 18th and 19th centuries to North-East India.
  • Parsi: The Zoroastrians from Greater Persia arrived in India fleeing from religious persecution in their native land in the 9th century. They flourished in India and in 18–19th centuries intervened on behalf of their co-religionists still in Greater Persia. They have produced India's pioneering industrialist house of Tata and one of the only two Indian Field Marshals in S. F. Manekshaw.
  • Tibetan Buddhists: Apart from sheltering Tibetan Buddhist refugees who fled their country after it was occupied by China in 1959, India is now home to the Dalai Lama, a high lama of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Baha'i: India now has world's largest Baha'i population of 4572 Baha'is,[10] who took refuge in India from religious persecution in Iran.

Religious disturbances and conflicts before 1947

Notable incidents of religious intolerance, conflicts and riots have occurred at several points in time.

  • There was persecution of Buddhists and Jains by Brahmanical Hindu monarchs under the influence of religious fundamentalists. Examples include the violent persecution of Buddhists by Pushyamitra Shunga in the 2nd century BC, the mass slaughter of Buddhists in Kashmir under the reign of Mihirakula, the 5th century Hun invader who converted to Shaivism, the persecution of Vaishnavas by Pallava monarchs in South India, and the brutal persecution of Jains by Pandyan monarchs under the tutelage of Shaiva saints in Tamil country.
  • Various Muslim rulers of present day Afghanistan, Sind, Punjab, the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal era (such as Aurangzeb) have been perpetrators of religious intolerance towards Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs , iconoclasm and imposition of jizya.
  • The Goa Inquisition was carried out against the Hindu, Muslim and Jewish populations of Goa under Portuguese Rule.

Communal violence during the Partition in 1947

There were widespread riots during the Partition of India in 1947 - There was communal violence directed against Hindu & Sikh minorities in areas that became Pakistan while violence was directed against Muslim minorities in Hindu/Sikh majority areas.

Conversion history

After the advent of Islam, when religious bias against the non-Islamic sects began to get severe, Hinduism began to take on a distinctive identity. During the 14th century, Sikhism also arose and drew into its fold a number of people in Punjab. Christianity has a history that traces back to the advent of Saint Thomas the Apostle in India around 48 AD. He is said to have been followed by Bartholomew around 55 AD. It is reported that when Vasco Da Gama visited Calicut in 1498 AD, he found over 2 lakh Christians in the Kerala area.[11] The British Government in the beginning discouraged any missionary work; however, in 1837, it permitted entry of white missionaries in its territory because of the pressure from the evangelical lobby in the British parliament.

Religious conversion has sparked a lot of attention and has caused hostilities in Indian families. Though conversion resolved the pre-conversion crisis, it resulted in more troubles in the convert's life. Different kinds of hostilities were: being killed, threatened with death, fear of future troubles or being disowned by parents and friends.[12]

Laws and Indian Constitution

The Preamble of the Indian Constitution has the word "secular", thereby implying that the State will not discriminate, patronise or meddle in the profession of any religion. However, it shields individual religions or groups by adding religious rights as fundamental rights. Article 25 says "all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health."[13] Further, Article 26 says that all denominations can manage their own affairs in matters of religion. All these rights are subject to be regulated by the State.[14]

Article 25 (2b) uses the term "Hindus" for all classes and sections of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs.[15] Sikhs and Buddhists objected to this wording that makes many Hindu personal laws applicable to them.[15] However, the same article also guarantees the right of members of the Sikh faith to bear a Kirpan.[16] Religions require no registration. The government can ban a religious organisation if it disrupts communal harmony, has been involved in terrorism or sedition, or has violated the Foreign Contributions Act. The government limits the entry of any foreign religious institution or missionary and since the 1960s, no new foreign missionaries have been accepted though long term established ones may renew their visas.[17] Many sections of the law prohibit hate speech and provide penalties for writings, illustrations, or speech that insult a particular community or religion.

Some major religious holidays like Diwali (Hindu), Christmas (Christian), Eid (Muslim) and Guru Nanak's birth anniversary (Sikh) are considered national holidays. Private schools offering religious instruction are permitted while government schools are non-religious.[18]

The government has set up the Ministry of Minority Affairs, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) to investigate religious discrimination and to make recommendations for redressal to the local authorities. Though they do not have any power, local and central authorities generally follow them. These organisations have investigated numerous instances of religious tension including the implementation of "anti-conversion" bills in numerous states, the 2002 Gujarat violence against Muslims and the 2008 attacks against Christians in Orissa.[19]

For Shia Muslims, the Grand Ashura Procession In Kashmir where they mourn the death of Husayn ibn Ali has been banned by the Government of Jammu and Kashmir from the 1990s. People taking part in it are detained, and injured[20] by Jammu and Kashmir Police every year.[21] According to the government, this restriction was placed due to security reasons.[21] Local religious authorities and separatist groups condemned this action and said it is a violation of their fundamental religious rights.[22]

Against conversions

The Article 25 of the Indian Constitution is a basic human right guarantee that cannot be subverted or misinterpreted in any manner. Anti-conversion laws are promulgated on the premise that forced or induced conversions happen and need to be prevented. Such laws are controversial because they run the risk of being abused by communal forces who may have the tacit approval of the dominant political party in the state or country.

A consolidation of various anti-conversion or so-called "Freedom of Religion" Laws has been done by the All Indian Christian Council.[23][24] Several Indian states passed Freedom of Religion Bills primarily to prevent people from converting to Christianity. Orissa was the first state to bring such law named as 'Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967'.[25] It was followed by Madhya Pradesh in 1968 and Arunachal Pradesh in 1978.[26]:385 Catholics protested against this saying that propagation of their faith was an important part of Christianity. Both laws enacted by the Orissa and Madhya Pradesh high courts were challenged stating Article 25 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court supported the laws saying, "What is freedom for one is freedom for the other in equal measure and there can, therefore, be no such thing as a fundamental right to convert any person to one's own religion".[14] This move was criticised because it ignored Article 25 and it did not differentiate between forced conversion and conversion by persuasion.[14]

Chhattisgarh in 2000 and Gujarat State in 2003 passed anti-conversion laws that prohibit forced or money induced conversions.[26]:385[27][28] In July 2006, the Madhya Pradesh government passed legislation requiring people who desire to convert to a different religion to provide the government with one month's notice, or face fines and penalties.[29] In August 2006, the Chhattisgarh State Assembly passed similar legislation requiring anyone who desires to convert to another religion to give 30 days' notice to, and seek permission from, the district magistrate.[30] In February 2007, Himachal Pradesh became the first Congress Party-ruled state to adopt legislation banning illegal religious conversions.[31] It was followed by Rajasthan in 2008, but it has still not became an act. So total there are 8 states where freedom of religion bill has become an act- Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand.

In 2013, the Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Venkaiah Naidu has declared that his party would bring anti-conversion laws nationwide if his party is elected to power in 2014.[26]:385 However, as of January 2018, the party does not yet have a majority in the Upper House of the Parliament. The president of party Amit Shah has challenged the opposition parties to support it in enacting such a law.[32] The US State Department has said that the recent wave of anti-conversion laws in various Indian states passed by some states is seen as gradual increase in ideological Hindu nationalism (Hindutva).[33]

Further reading

  • Madhya Pradesh (India)., & Niyogi, M. B. (1956). Vindicated by time: The Niyogi Committee report on Christian missionary activities. Nagpur: Government Printing, Madhya Pradesh.
  • Shourie, Arun. (2006). Missionaries in India: Continuities, changes, dilemmas. New Delhi: Rupa.ISBN 9788172232702
  • Shourie, A. (2006). Harvesting our souls: Missionaries, their design, their claims. New Delhi: Rupa.
  • Shourie, A. (2006). Indian controversies: Essays on religion in politics. New Delhi: Rupa & Co. ISBN 978-8190019927
  • Shourie, A. (2012). World of fatwas or the sharia in action. Harpercollins India.
  • Swarup, D. (1986). Politics of conversion. Delhi: Deendayal Research Institute.
  • Sharma, A. (2014). Hinduism as a missionary religion. New Delhi: Dev Publishers & Distributors.


  1. article 15 of India Constitution
  2. "THE CONSTITUTION (FORTY-SECOND AMENDMENT) ACT, 1976". Retrieved 26 November 2015.
  3. Brass, Paul R. (2005). The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India. University of Washington Press. p. 65. ISBN 978-0-295-98506-0.
  4. "India: No Justice for 1984 Anti-Sikh Bloodshed". Human Rights Watch.
  5. "Thousands call for justice for victims of 1984 Sikh massacres - Amnesty International India". Amnesty International India.
  6. Rajni Kothari (1998). Communalism in Indian Politics. Rainbow Publishers. pp. 134. ISBN 978-81-86962-00-8.
  7. "INDOLOGY archives – March 2001 (#143)".
  8. Tying bonds of unity at Guru ki Maseet |
  9. "Population Enumeration Data". Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs. 2011. Retrieved 17 December 2016.
  10. Sundar Raj, Ebe (1998). The Confusion Called Conversion. New Delhi: TRACI. p. 4.
  11. Iyadurai, Joshua (28 May 2010). "the step model of transformative religious experiences: a phenomenological understanding of religious conversions in india". Pastoral Psychology 60 no.4 (August 1, 2011). springer science+business media (60): 505–521. doi:10.1007/s11089-010-0287-6.
  13. 1 2 3 Larson, Gerald James (2001-01-01). Religion and Personal Law in Secular India: A Call to Judgment. Indiana University Press. pp. 25–27. ISBN 0253214807.
  14. 1 2 Boyle, Kevin; Sheen, Juliet (2013-03-07). Freedom of Religion and Belief: A World Report. Routledge. pp. 191–192. ISBN 9781134722297.
  15. The Constitution of India, Right to Freedom of religion, Article 25 | "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 September 2014. Retrieved 2011-09-03.
  16. "Religious Persecution in India" (PDF).
  17. Lipton, Edward P. (2002-01-01). Religious Freedom in Asia. Nova Publishers. pp. 22–25. ISBN 9781590333914.
  18. "Religious Freedom in India" (PDF).
  20. 1 2 "50 Shia mourners detained in Srinagar on Muharram day". Rediff. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
  21. "In Pictures: Mourners teargassed, arrested on Muharram in Kashmir". Kashmir Dispatch. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
  22. "Laws & Policies". All India Christian Council. Archived from the original on 27 December 2007. Retrieved 29 December 2007.
  23. See Sebastian Kim, In Search of Identity: Debates on Religious Conversion in India (Delhi & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  24. "The Hindu : Anti-conversion laws".
  25. 1 2 3 Osuri, Goldie (2013). "The Concern for Sovereignty in the Politics of Anti-conversion". Religion Compass. 7 (9): 385–393. doi:10.1111/rec3.12064.
  28. "Conversions harder in India state 26/07/2006". BBC News. 26 July 2006.
  29. Mohammad, Faisal (4 August 2006). "Christian anger at conversion law 04/08/2006". BBC News.
  30. "WorldWide Religious News-Himachal enforces anti-conversion law". 22 February 2007. Archived from the original on 21 October 2007.
  31. "Let secular parties support anti-conversion bill: Amit Shah". The Times of India.
  32. TOI on International Religious Freedom Report 2003, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour of the US State Department
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