The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom; however, authorities at times limit this freedom by maintaining or enforcing existing state-level “anti-conversion” legislation and other laws that infringe on religious freedom and the rights of minorities.
Under the National Commission for Minorities Act, five religious communities – Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, and Buddhists – are considered minority communities. This law provides that the government will protect the existence of these religious minorities and encourage conditions for the promotion of their individual identities.
There are active “anti-conversion” laws in five of the 28 states: Gujarat, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh. Arunachal Pradesh’s 1978 anti-conversion law remains on the books but unimplemented due to a continuing lack of enabling legislation. Authorities generally explain these laws as protective measures meant to shield vulnerable individuals from being induced to change their faith. For example, the Gujarat law proscribes religious conversions through “allurement, force, or fraud.” In 2009 civil rights groups brought a constitutional challenge to the Gujarat laws, but the Gujarat High Court had yet to hear the case by year’s end.
Under Himachal Pradesh law, no “person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any other fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.” Violations are punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of 25,000 rupees ($625), with increased penalties if “Scheduled Caste” or “Scheduled Tribe” members (socially marginalized groups) or minors are involved. In the past, the law required a “Notice of Intention” to be filed 30 days before any act of conversion, except for acts of reconversion. However, in August, the Himachal Pradesh High Court voided this provision and two other state rules supporting it after the Evangelical Fellowship of India petitioned to challenge the provision. Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh maintain similar prohibitions against conversion by force or enticement.
Odisha law also prohibits religious conversion “by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion.” Penalties include imprisonment, a fine, or both, and are harsher if the offense involves minors, women, or a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe member. The law also requires that district magistrates maintain a list of religious organizations and individuals propagating religious beliefs, that individuals provide notification prior to conversion, and that clergy declare their intent to officiate in a conversion ceremony.
The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) regulates foreign contributions to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including faith-based NGOs. The Ministry of Home Affairs specifies that an application for foreign funding can be rejected under the FCRA if the association is found to be creating communal tensions or disharmony, or if accepting foreign contributions might be prejudicial to “harmony between any religious, social, linguistic, or regional group, caste, or community.”
The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) empowers the government to ban religious organizations that provoke intercommunity friction, are involved in terrorism or sedition, or violate the FCRA. Local authorities on occasion rely upon certain sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to arrest persons engaged in activities deemed offensive to other groups or religions. For example, one provision of the law prohibits “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion…and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony.” Another provision prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
There are no requirements for registration of religious groups; however, the government requires foreign missionaries of any religious group to obtain a “missionary visa” and usually expels those who perform missionary work without the appropriate visa. There is no national law barring a citizen or foreigner from professing or propagating religious beliefs.
Under Andhra Pradesh law, authorities may prohibit the propagation of one religion near a place of worship or prayer of another religion. Thus far, the state has identified only Hindu religious sites for this protection. Punishment for violations of the act can include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,312 rupees ($125). A fact-finding team from the National Commission for Minorities found that the prohibition was not in line with the constitution’s protections of freedom of religion, noting that the IPC had provisions sufficient to deal with offenses committed in places of worship.
The constitution provides that Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism are considered subsets of Hinduism; however, these groups view themselves as distinct faiths and have sought legislation to change this provision. Sikhs have sought passage of a law that recognizes their uniqueness and precludes ambiguity. Although the 1992 National Commission for Minorities Act identifies Buddhism as a separate religion, the Supreme Court in 2005 rejected the inclusion of Jainism under the act, stating that the practice of adding new religious groups as minorities should be discouraged. However, in June 2008, the Delhi state government accorded minority status to the Jain community. Jains also have minority status in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, and West Bengal. According to press reports, state governments have the power to grant minority status to religious groups designated as minorities under the 1992 act, but not all states have officially done so. The states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka recognize Sikhs as minorities.
There are different state laws only applicable to certain religious communities (known as “personal laws”) in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance. The government grants a significant amount of autonomy to personal status law boards in crafting these laws. Hindu law, Christian law, Parsi law, and Islamic law are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. None is exempt from national and state level legislative powers or social reform obligations as stated in the constitution.
A law passed by the parliament on May 20 permits Sikhs to register their marriages under the Anand Marriage (Amendment) Act of 1909 instead of the Hindu Marriage Act. The Anand (term for Sikh weddings) Marriage Act provides Sikhs partial recognition and allows separate registration of Sikh marriages; however, there are no divorce provisions for Sikhs and other Sikh matters still fall under Hindu codes. Previously under the Hindu Marriage Act, Sikhs faced problems abroad when they claimed their faith since their marriage certificates said they were Hindus.
The government permits private religious schools, but not religious instruction in government schools. The government may prescribe merit-based admission for religious colleges that receive public funding. Other religious schools may use their own criteria for admission, including religious affiliation.
Approximately 30,000 Islamic schools operate in the country and provide full or part-time education. Most do not accept government aid, noting that it would subject them to government influence.
The law generally provides remedies for violations of religious freedom, and legal protections exist to address discrimination or persecution by private individuals. Federal bodies including the Ministry for Minority Affairs, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and the National Commission for Minorities may investigate allegations of religious discrimination. There is also a National Commission for Minority Education Institutions that has the power to investigate complaints regarding violations of minority rights in the education system, and the right to establish and administer educational institutions. These bodies make recommendations for redress to the relevant local or national government authorities. Although NHRC recommendations do not have the force of law, central and local authorities generally follow them and the two federal bodies have intervened in several high profile incidents.
The government observes the following religious holidays as national holidays: Good Friday and Christmas (Christianity); the two Eids (Islam); Lord Buddha’s Birthday (Buddhism); Guru Nanak’s Birthday (Sikhism); Dussehra, Diwali, and Holi (Hinduism); and the Birthday of Lord Mahavir (Jainism).