“Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant...” is an old Christmas hymn. I wonder if fringe groups are hellbent on adding ‘at your own risk’ to the lyrics, for carol singers and celebrations in schools in certain States in India. From the move to observe ‘Good Governance Day’ on Christmas to the present protests, such intimidatory posturing flies in the face of Constitutional and penal provisions and international covenants. Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees the fundamental right of freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion.” Article 18 of the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is clear about the scope of religious freedom. It includes the right “either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
How can carol singing or an innocuous celebration of Christmas in schools or giving gifts to friends or poor children be objectionable? How can it remotely be deemed an attempt at conversion? In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court in Ratilal Panachand Gandhi Vs State of Bombay had ruled that a citizen had a right “to exhibit his belief and ideas in such overt acts as are enjoined or sanctioned by his religion and further to propagate his religious views for the edification of others”. The twin freedom of conscience, inextricably linked to religion, has been explained by the apex court in John Vallamattom Vs Union of India as a supplemental “freedom of unhampered expression of spiritual conviction.”
The Catholic Church, for instance, which preaches ‘faith, hope and charity’, has reiterated that a ‘forced conversion’ is an oxymoron. If it’s forced, it cannot be a conversion. The apprehension, I suspect, probably emanates from the wording of anti-conversion laws in some States in India. The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003 defines ‘conversion’ as the act of making a person “renounce one religion and adopt another.” Under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, ‘forcible conversion’ involves “a show of force or a threat of injury of any kind, including the threat of divine displeasure or social ex-communication.”
The Freedom of Religion Act in Madhya Pradesh considers ‘allurement’ as “an offer of any temptation in the form of any gift or gratification in cash or kind.” In these enactments, the key terms have been loosely worded. There is considerable leeway to even misinterpret genuine, unconditional acts of charity or propagation. The Supreme Court in Rev Stanislaus Vs State of Madhya Pradesh had clarified that what the term ‘propogate’ grants is not the right to convert another person to one’s own religion, but to transmit or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenets.”
If a school wants to conduct a Christmas celebration, would a protest not violate Article 26 (b) of the Constitution that guarantees every religious denomination, the right “to manage its own affairs in matters of religion”? Would not violence unleashed on carol singers attract Section 296 of the Indian Penal Code as an act “disturbing religious assembly?”
There may be stray, misguided sections in the community who attempt conversions. I do not bat for such groups. Neither does the Church approve of such activities. Look at the big picture. If Christians are indeed going around converting others, why has its population fallen to 2.3% according to the last census of 2011 from 2.6% four decades ago?
Christmas has never been about conversion. It has always centred about sharing joy. Pope Francis is reported to have quipped: “The Christmas pine is you when you resist vigorous winds and difficulties of life. The Christmas decorations are you when your virtues adorn your life. The Christmas angels are you when you sing a message of peace, justice and love. A Merry Christmas to all those who look like Christmas”....