Subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health, the constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, and mandates a secular state. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including with regard to employment, as well as any religion-based restrictions on individuals’ access to public or private facilities or establishments open to the general public. The constitution states religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits compelling anyone to pay taxes to promote or maintain any specific religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.
Federal law empowers the government to ban religious organizations that provoke intercommunal tensions, are involved in terrorism or sedition, or violate laws governing foreign contributions.
Eight of the 29 states have legislation restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Rajasthan. Five of these states enforce the laws. There is no implementing legislation for the anticonversion law in Arunachal Pradesh. Rajasthan passed a bill in 2006 that has yet to be signed into law. In August Jharkhand also passed an anticonversion bill, which was pending the governor’s approval at year’s end. Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh prohibit religious conversion by the use of “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means” and require district authorities be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Violators, including missionaries and other religious figures who encourage conversion, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if the converts are minors, women, or members of government-designated, historically disadvantaged groups (known as Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes). Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes forced conversions with up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($780). In Himachal Pradesh penalties are up to two years’ imprisonment and/or fines of 25,000 rupees ($390). Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or, in the case of Odisha, women, may consist of jail sentences rather than fines. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate in a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government.
According to the Supreme Court, converting from Hinduism to another religion ordinarily “operates as an expulsion from the caste” since caste is a structure affiliated with Hindu society. Societal definitions of caste affiliation are determinative of a person’s eligibility for government benefits based on caste.
Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near another religion’s place of worship. Punishment for violations can include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($78).
The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.
There are no requirements for registration of religious groups, although federal law requires religiously affiliated organizations to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.
A federal law, known as the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), regulates foreign contributions to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including faith-based organizations. Organizations with “definite cultural, economic, educational, religious or social programs” must receive a federal government certificate of registration to receive foreign funds. The federal government may also require that certified organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The federal government may reject an application for a certificate of registration or a request for prior permission to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be prejudicially affecting “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”
The constitution states any reference to Hindus in law is to be construed as containing a reference to followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation passed throughout the 1950s continues to use the word Hindu to include Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and others, but clarifies these are separate religions whose followers are included under this legislation.
Federal law provides minority community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region and designate them as minorities under state law. Minority status makes these groups eligible for several government assistance programs. The constitution states the government will protect the existence of religious minorities and encourage conditions for the promotion of their individual identities.
Personal status laws are applicable only to certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance. The government grants significant autonomy to personal status law boards in drafting these laws. Law boards are selected by community leaders; there is no formal process, and selection varies across communities. One personal law board governs all the denominations and sects within a particular religious community. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. These laws, however, do not supersede national- and state-level legislative powers or constitutional provisions. If the law boards cannot offer satisfactory solutions, the case is referred to the civil courts.
Federal law permits interreligious couples to marry without religious conversion. Interreligious couples, as is the case for all couples marrying in a civil ceremony, are required to provide public notice 30 days in advance, including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation, for public comment. Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions, however, face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.
The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages. There are no divorce provisions for Sikhs under personal status laws, however, and other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools. The law permits private religious schools.
Twenty-four of the 29 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states, and also may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. In the majority of the 24 states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($16 to $160). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. On March 31, the Gujarat government passed a law increasing the penalties for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef. The new law mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts of manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for these offenses.
The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These bodies have no enforcement powers but launch investigations based on written complaints by plaintiffs charging criminal or civil violations and submit their findings to law enforcement agencies for action. Eighteen of the country’s 29 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.
The constitution allows for a form of affirmative action for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities, and the “Other Backward Class” – a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. Since the constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists shall be deemed a member of a Scheduled Caste, the only means through which Christian and Muslim individuals may qualify for affirmative action benefits as members of religious communities is if they are considered members of the “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.
The government requires foreign missionaries of any religious group to obtain a missionary visa.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: Authorities often did not prosecute violence by vigilantes against persons, mostly Muslims, suspected of slaughtering or illegally transporting cows or trading in or consuming beef. Members of civil society and religious minorities said, under the current government, religious minority communities felt more vulnerable to Hindu nationalist groups engaging in violence against non-Hindu individuals and places of worship. Religious minority communities stated, while the national government sometimes spoke out against incidents of violence, local political leaders often did not, and at times made public remarks that individuals could interpret as condoning violence. Some long-standing legal cases involving religiously motivated violence and riots continued to advance slowly. In May the Kerala High Court annulled a marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man based on third-party allegations the woman was forcibly converted to Islam, despite her denial she was forced to do so. On August 22, the Supreme Court ruled the practice through which a Muslim man could divorce his wife instantly by saying the word “talaq” (Arabic for divorce) three times was unconstitutional. On May 23, the government banned the sale of cattle for slaughter through animal markets. In July the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the order across the country for three months; the government was expected to withdraw the ban after receiving negative feedback from state-level agricultural sectors but had not done so by year’s end. The government continued its challenge to the minority status of Muslim educational institutions in the Supreme Court. Minority status afforded these institutions independence in hiring and curriculum decisions.
According to media, on June 27, the Gujarat High Court granted bail to Atul Vaidya, a VHP leader who was one of 24 convicted in the 2002 anti-Muslim “Gulberg Society” killings. In June 2016, a Gujarat special court convicted 24 individuals (11 of whom received sentences of life imprisonment) and acquitted 36 others for their role in the mob killing of 69 persons in the Gulberg Society neighborhood during the 2002 Gujarat riots. This incident was one of 10 mass killings in 2002 in Gujarat, which perpetrators of the violence said was in retaliation for the burning to death of 59 Hindu pilgrims on a train on February 27, 2002. According to media, on October 5, the Gujarat High Court dismissed an appeal submitted by Zakia Jafri, one of the Gulberg Society survivors. Jafri requested a new investigation into 58 individuals, including then-Chief Minister (and now prime minister) Narendra Modi, for conspiracy in the 2002 riots. According to press reports, the High Court stated Jafri could approach either the trial court or the Apex Court to seek a reinvestigation into her allegations challenging a 2013 ruling by a Supreme Court-appointed panel that stated there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the 58 individuals
In September the Allahabad High Court granted bail to the 18 individuals charged with participating in the September 2015 mob lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, for allegedly slaughtering a cow. In September 2016, investigating officials concluded there was no evidence to prove Akhlaq or his family ever slaughtered a cow. In October 2017 media reported a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state legislator in Uttar Pradesh was working to help the 18 charged individuals out on bail secure employment and the family of one of the accused that died in jail would receive 800,000 rupees ($12,500).
In September the Rajasthan High Court granted bail to five of the seven individuals arrested for killing Pehlu Khan, a Muslim dairy farmer from Haryana, on the basis of a video of the attack gone viral. In September authorities also closed an investigation into six other individuals whom Khan had identified as participants in the attack. On April 1, a group of 200 so-called “cow vigilantes” had attacked Khan in Alwar while he was transporting two cows and two calves in the back of his truck; Khan died two days later.
On March 22, a National Investigation Agency (NIA) Special Court sentenced two workers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization, to life imprisonment for the 2007 explosion at the shrine of Sufi mystic Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Rajasthan. The blast, which occurred just before an iftar, killed three persons.
On April 9, a member of Telangana’s legislative assembly, T. Raja Singh Lodh, reportedly stated he would behead those opposing the construction of the Ram temple at a disputed site in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. Media outlets widely perceived his comments as targeting Muslims, whom the media expected to oppose the construction of a Hindu temple over the site where a mosque stood during the Mughal Empire. The Hyderabad police charged Lodh for taking deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. On May 13, police charged Lodh and Mohammed Abdul Majid, of the Islamic Darsgah-Jihad-O-Shahadath (DJS) organization, for promoting enmity between different groups on the basis of religion. The charges were based on alleged statements related to maintaining private armies to defend Hinduism and Islam, respectively. On July 27, the Telangana Law Department permitted police to prosecute Lodh for hate speech for inflammatory remarks he delivered at a “cow protection” rally in September 2013.
On July 13, Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned a rise in deadly mob attacks on cattle traders, consumers of beef, and dairy farmers, and said killing persons in the name of protecting cows was unacceptable. On July 21, in response to a petition filed by social activist Tehseen Poonawala asking authorities to take action against “cow vigilantes,” Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar stated the federal government did not support “cow vigilantism” but that actions to curb such incidents needed to be taken at the state level.
On April 14, the Punjab government announced the formation of a commission, led by retired Justice Ranjit Singh, to investigate the October 2015 police shootings during widespread Sikh protests, which killed two and injured 80 protesters. Sikhs protested in five districts after reports a Sikh holy book had been desecrated by unknown persons. The state government formed the new commission after several Sikh organizations said the sacrilege case was “compromised” by the previous commission, led by former Press Council of India Chairman and retired Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju, which had investigated the incident at the behest of several human rights NGOs. On June 28, the new commission recommended charges against the police officers involved for “unwarranted firing,” and compensation of 2.5 million rupees ($39,200) and regular employment to family members of Gujreet Singh and Krishan Bhagwan Singh, both killed in the shootings. By year’s end, authorities had not paid compensation to the victims.
Press reports noted the Supreme Court formed a new Special Investigation Team (SIT) to assess 186 cases related to anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and Punjab in 1984. Reports said the SIT would include a retired High Court judge, a police officer of the rank of inspector general, and a serving police officer of the rank of superintendent. Previously, on August 16, the court had appointed a supervisory panel made up of two retired judges to examine a previous SIT’s decision to close 241 cases due to lack of evidence. The court asked the supervisory panel to produce a report on their finding in three months. The supervisory panel determined 186 cases out of the 241 should be investigated further.
On May 4, the Bombay High Court upheld the conviction of 11 individuals sentenced to life imprisonment in January 2008, for participating in the gang rape of pregnant 19-year-old Bilkis Bano during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. The twelfth individual convicted for the crime died before the May ruling. The court also set aside the previous acquittal by a lower court of seven other individuals – five police officers and two doctors – accused of participating in the rape and convicted of failing to perform their duties and tampering with evidence. The court rejected the Criminal Bureau of Investigation’s request to change the penalties of the three “main perpetrators” from life sentences to death penalties.
Members of civil society and religious minorities stated that under the current BJP government religious minority communities felt more vulnerable due to Hindu nationalist groups engaging in violence against non-Hindu individuals and places of worship. Religious minority communities stated, while the national government sometimes spoke out against incidents of violence, local political leaders often did not, and at times made public remarks individuals could interpret as condoning violence. On April 2, Chhattisgarh’s BJP Chief Minister Raman Singh told reporters anyone killing a cow in his state would be hanged. In a speech at University of Bangalore on August 7, then-Vice President of India Hamid Ansari said Dalits, Muslims, and Christians were feeling increasingly insecure. In an August 10 interview, Ansari stated there was a feeling of “unease” and “insecurity creeping in” among Muslims in the country. His remarks drew criticism from the BJP and Hindu nationalist groups.
On May 21, Madhya Pradesh police arrested six Christians for allegedly kidnapping 72 minors with the intention of forcibly converting them to Christianity. The children’s parents stated they were already Protestants and had given consent for their children to attend a summer Vacation Bible School (VBS) camp in Nagpur under the care of the arrested Christians. Police stated the children’s families had not provided proof they had already converted to Christianity. According to the Christian NGO Morning Star News (MSN), on June 12, the state high court denied bail to the six VBS volunteers: Ameya Jaal, Alkesh Ganava, Pandu Singh Vasuniya, Nitin Mandod, Lalu Babore, and Vijay Meda, a 17-year-old minor. Authorities reportedly held one of the VBS attendees, 15-year-old Akash Gundia, in juvenile detention center for nearly a month before releasing him on June 20. Gundia said children as young as six years old were also in police custody until police released them when their parents arrived. His father, Singh Gundia, told MSN, “I got to know from the police station that police had not intended to file the case, but that there was pressure from RSS [a self-defined Hindu nationalist group] and Bajrang Dal activists, because of whom my child spent 25 days in judicial custody.” NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF)’s Prisoners List 2017 stated, although it was reported police released the children to their parents, there was no precise information on the status of the 71 children besides Gundia.
Media reported police arrested seven Christian pastors – Stanley Jacob, Vijay Kumar, Sumit Varghese, David from New Delhi, Amit from Mathura, Anita from Hathras, and Dinesh from Rajasthan – on December 4 while they were holding a prayer meeting in a private home. The following day a court sentenced them to 14 days in judicial custody for carrying out a forcible conversion campaign. Family members of the seven pastors said local residents were upset because some individuals were converting to Christianity.
According to news sources, on March 12, the Ghaziabad police arrested four men after the anti-Muslim video they uploaded on WhatsApp went viral. Authorities charged Ajay Chaprana, Prakash Dubey, Nakul Nagar, and Mukesh Yadav, all under the age of 25, with using inappropriate language, fanning communal hatred, making abusive comments against a community, and uploading the video to various social media. The video was deleted and the accused men were sent to judicial custody. No updates were available at year’s end.
MSN reported police arrested Christian teenager Karan Anthony on August 23 for promoting enmity between classes. His former classmate and friend Sathin Gaur had filed a police complaint that Anthony posted anti-Hindu comments on Facebook. Anthony denied the charge, saying he had not used Facebook in months because whenever he posted something about Christianity, his classmates started sending abusive comments to him. Anthony told MSN, “It was my good friend who falsely framed me by joining hands with Rudra Sena [a self-defined Hindu nationalist group] activists.” Police held Anthony in jail for 12 days, and then released him on bail on September 3.
On March 28, media reported Madhya Pradesh police arrested Dr. Aatik Khan after an individual objected to his sharing an image on social media of a sadhu (Hindu ascetic) standing near a meat shop. Police reportedly said the post mocked the closure of illegal slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh and, as directed by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, charged Khan for making statements conducive to “public mischief.”
On June 15, the government railway police forced a Catholic nun, three women, and a minor to disembark from a train in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, after Matrushakti, the women’s wing of VHP, accused the nun of forcible conversion. Police released the detainees but later charged Sister Bina Joseph for abduction of a minor after the child’s parent filed a complaint. Prior to the incident, Father Stephen P. Maria, the public relations officer of the Catholic Diocese of Madhya Pradesh, had submitted a statement to railway police reporting harassment of Christian missionaries traveling by train in the region.
The media reported on May 25 that the Kerala High Court annulled a marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man, based on third-party allegations the woman was forcibly converted to Islam. Acting upon a petition from the woman’s father, the court ordered the woman to return to her parents’ home. She denied that she was forced to convert. On July 6, the husband appealed the Kerala High Court ruling to the Supreme Court, arguing his wife had consented to conversion. The Supreme Court accepted the case and referred it to the NIA, which stated the case of the woman converting from Hinduism to Islam was not an isolated one and it could be part of a larger plot by Muslim men to convert Hindu women. Following this statement, the Supreme Court ordered the NIA to investigate the allegations of forced conversion in this case. On November 27, after the wife appeared before the Supreme Court, it ruled she could leave her parent’s custody and return to her college in Kerala under the supervision of the school’s superintendent. Media reported that on December 9, she reunited with her husband at the college for the first time in more than a year.
On May 23, the central government issued a regulation banning the sale of cattle for slaughter through animal markets. Some observers reportedly expressed concern that the ban would most negatively impact Muslims, who dominate the country’s quarter trillion rupee ($3.9 billion) buffalo meat export industry. In July the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the order for three months. According to media reports, the ban resulted in major protests from farmers, beef-consuming states, and an adverse order from the Supreme Court. On November 30, a senior official at the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change said the government was “considering certain changes, which will make rules more acceptable” but no updates were available by the end of the year.
On August 25, the Supreme Court clarified its verdict declaring privacy a fundamental right would also have a bearing in matters related to the possession of beef in Maharashtra. Earlier that month the Supreme Court agreed to hear a Maharashtra government appeal of the May 2016 Bombay High Court ruling that a portion of the state’s 2015 beef ban was unconstitutional. The Bombay High Court stated Maharashtra could not prohibit possession of beef from cows slaughtered outside the state because doing so would violate the right of citizens to possess and consume food of their choice. The Supreme Court had not heard the appeal by year’s end. Consumers, butchers, and sellers in Maharahstra State said they remained vulnerable to prosecution in court because the burden of proof the cow was not slaughtered in Maharashtra rested on the accused.
On September 6, the Supreme Court directed all state governments to appoint a senior police officer in each district to prevent and respond effectively to incidents of “cow vigilantism.” A three-judge panel also directed the chief secretaries of all state governments to report on actions taken to prevent incidents of “cow vigilantism.”
On August 22, the Supreme Court ruled the provision of Muslim personal law permitting a Muslim man to divorce his wife instantly by saying the word “talaq” (Arabic for divorce) three times was unconstitutional. The court preserved all other aspects of Muslim personal law, including other forms of divorce. The ruling came in response to a petition a Muslim woman, Shayara Banu, filed in 2016.
On September 8, the Jammu and Kashmir State government imposed restrictions in parts of Srinagar limiting protests against Burmese treatment of its Muslim Rohingya population. The restrictions included a ban on Friday Islamic prayers. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Ulema (MMU), a Kashmiri council of Muslim leaders and scholars, had called for protests following Friday prayers to express solidarity with Rohingya, and authorities placed under house arrest MMU leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. An MMU spokesperson stated “the government continues to follow the policy of oppression, and disallowing Friday prayers is a direct interference in religious activity.”
In March the U.S. faith-based organization Compassion International, which the government had placed on its prior approval list, closed its operations in the country because it could not transfer funds to its local implementing partners. Compassion International maintained that the government used the law to restrict the work of Christian charitable organizations.
In July the Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act became law – the first law of its kind in the country to punish social excommunication and abuses by extrajudicial caste and community courts. Pune city resident Umesh Rudrap filed the first complaint in Maharashtra against his community council, the Telugu Madelwar Parit Community, after it sanctioned a social boycott following his intercaste marriage. The boycott prevented him from attending religious ceremonies in his community.
The Chhattisgarh Christian Forum reported that on July 14, in Belwapar village of Sukma District, a mob attacked 18 Christian families and vandalized property while the families attended a prayer meeting at a local Christian’s home. The forum stated police did not press charges against the assailants, and that the Christian families were subsequently under threat of social boycott in the village and of being arrested as Maoist insurgents. The Forum reported local police did not investigate incidents of a similar nature occurring in 22 villages in southern Chhattisgarh during the year.
MSN reported police detained six Christians on June 27 for unlawful assembly, defined as knowingly joining or continuing in any assembly of five or more persons after being commanded to disperse. Pastor Asha Ram Sahni said Station House Officer Aravind Kumar berated and slapped him multiple times for reading the Bible instead of Hindu texts. Another detainee, Gurudeen, said Kumar told him, “You instigate people and convert them to Christianity, and you consume beef too. You will spend your life in jail.” Gurudeen said the inspector reportedly sent police officers to his house to harass his wife for four days during his incarceration. The other four detainees were Chote Lal, Ram Naresh, Gobrey Nishad, and Lal Bihari Verma. HRWF reported all six were granted bail and released on July 5.
On September 28, the Maharashtra State government announced that “neo-Buddhists” (Dalits who adopted Buddhism in the mid-twentieth century) were eligible for minority welfare benefits in the state. Members of Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, Parsi, and Jain minority communities continued to be eligible for minority welfare benefits in the state.
On March 19, more than 100 persons, many of whom stated they were “cow protectors,” protested in front of a hotel owned by a Muslim in Jaipur and alleged that the hotel was serving beef, which is banned in Rajasthan. The Jaipur Municipal Corporation, an urban-level government body, reportedly shut down the hotel following the protests, triggering nationwide condemnation. One media report stated the community was primarily upset about the manner in which the hotel was disposing nonvegetarian foods, which were subsequently eaten by the nearby cows. On May 9, police stated forensic examination of meat samples seized from the hotel ruled out the possibility that it was from a cow. The hotel reopened on June 1, after having remained closed for 74 days.