Freedom of religion in India

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Freedom of religion in India is a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 15 and Article 25 of the Constitution of India.[1] Modern India came into existence in 1947 as a secular nation and the Indian constitution's preamble states that India is a secular state. Freedom of religion is established in tradition as Hinduism does not recognise labels of distinct religions[2][3] and has no concept of blasphemy or heresy.[4][5] Every citizen of India has a right to practice and promote their religion peacefully. However, there have been a number of incidents of religious intolerance that resulted in riots and violence. These incidents have been condemned by the governmental administrations, private businesses, and judicial systems.

India is one of the most diverse nations in terms of religion, it being the birthplace of four major world religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Even though Hindus form close to 80 percent of the population, India also enjoys multiple regions with majority populations of other religions: notably, Jammu and Kashmir with Muslim majority, Punjab with Sikh majority, and Nagaland with Christian majority. The country has large Muslim, Sikh, Christian, 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 12 percent of the nation's population.

Many scholars and intellectuals believe that India's predominant religion, Hinduism, has long been a most tolerant religion.[6] 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 non-religious."[7]


Tradition of religious freedom[edit]

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 one’s 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[edit]

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 in 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: 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 who took refuge to India from religious persecution in Iran.

Religious disturbances and conflicts before 1947[edit]

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

  • Persecution of Buddhists and Jains by Brahmanical Hindu monarchs under the influence of religious fundamentalists was common for centuries. Examples include the violent persecution of Buddhists by Pushyamitra Sunga 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.
  • Some Islamic travellers such as Mahmud of Ghazni committed iconoclasm and genocide of Hindus.
  • Various rulers of the Mughal era (such as Aurangzeb) are regarded as perpetrators of religious intolerance towards Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs through violent acts, oppression, iconoclasm and imposition of jizya.
  • The Goa Inquisition was carried out against the Hindu, Muslim and Jewish populations of Goa by Portuguese Rule.

Communal violence during the Partition in 1947[edit]

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 in India[edit]

Religious conversions may be dated back to the times of Age of Protest when Buddhism and Jainism posed challenge to organized Brahminism. Emperor Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries to foreign kingdoms and he also undertook religious journeys to inspire his people towards religiosity.[citation needed] Adi Shankaracharya used debates as a platform to contest the supremacy of the Vedas and the Upanisads. The Buddhists and the Jains along with the Charvakas were labeled as nastika (heterodox or unbelievers). 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 A.D.48. He is said to have been followed by Bartholomew around A.D. 55. It is reported that when Vasco Da Gama visited Calicut in 1498 AD, he found over 2 lak Christians in the Kerala area.[10] 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.[citation needed]

Religious conversion have 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.[11]

Laws against conversions[edit]

The Indian Constitution in Article 25 grants to citizens of India of all religious persuasions freedom to profess, practise and propagate their faith in a way that does not disrupt public order and does not affect public health and morality adversely.[12] The Article 25 of the Indian Constitution is a basic human rights guarantee that cannot be subverted or misinterpreted in any manner. It is in this context that the anti-conversion laws in India must be viewed. 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.[13][14]

In the past, 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'.[15] It was followed by Madhya Pradesh in 1968 and Arunachal Pradesh in 1978.[16]:385

Chattisgarh in 2000 and Gujarat State in 2003 passed anti-conversion laws.[16]:385

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.[17]

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.[18]

In February 2007, Himachal Pradesh became the first Congress Party-ruled state to adopt legislation banning illegal religious conversions.[19] It was followed by Rajasthan in 2008.[16]:385

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.[16]:385 However, as of April 2015, 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.[20]

The US State Department has claimed that the recent wave of anti-conversion laws in various Indian states passed by some states is seen as gradual increase in the Hindu nationalism(Hindutva).[21]

Cases of religious violence[edit]

Situation of Hindus[edit]

Militants have murdered and forcibly displaced more than 400,000 Kashmiri Hindus during the Kashmir insurgency.[22] This has been condemned and labelled as ethnic cleansing in a 2006 resolution passed by the United States Congress.[23] In Northeastern India, Christian extremist groups have been accused of harassing, murdering and forcibly converting Hindus, and attacking temples though it has yet to be proven by a judicial body. In 2000, Tripura police discovered that The Baptist Church of Tripura supplied the NLFT with arms and financial support and to have encouraged forced conversion and murder of Hindus. NLFT has allegedly issued a ban on the Hindu festivals of Durga Puja and Saraswati Puja, and declared it their mission to expand what they describe as the kingdom of God and Christ in Tripura.[24] In Assam, members of the primarily Christian Hmar ethnic group have allegedly placed bloodstained crosses in temples and forced Hindus to convert at gunpoint.[25] Many Hindu holy sites have been regularly attacked by terrorist groups, including Varanasi, Ayodhya, and Akshardham temple.

Situation of Muslims[edit]

In 1992, a mob of Hindu militants demolished a mosque named Babri Masjid and attacked other Muslim targets in the north Indian town of Ayodhya, on the fact that the mosque had been built where a temple had once stood and then demolished by Muslims, and their belief that the land was the birthplace of Ram, an incarnation of the Hindu God, Vishnu.[26] The event one of India's worst outbreaks of inter-communal violence. The 2002 Gujarat riots against Muslims were claimed to be in response to a train carrying Hindus having been burnt when passing through a Muslim majority village.

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[27] by Jammu and Kashmir Police every year.[28] According to the government, this restriction was placed due to security reasons.[28] Local religious authorities and separatist groups condemned this action and said it is a violation of their fundamental religious rights.[29]

Situation of Sikhs[edit]

On the whole, Sikhs are a well adjusted community in India, very much part of the national mainstream, with significant contributions to every walk of life. However, they have also been targeted for their faith & their political rights have often been compromised even after India's independence.

  • Historically, Sikhs were a highly persecuted minority under most of the Mughal rulers (except egalitarian ones like Akbar), either for their religious beliefs or for their stand against repeated plunder of India by external invaders.
  • During the Partition of India in 1947, they suffered disproportionately as their homeland of Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan and a large percentage of their population had to migrate. They also suffered heavily in the communal violence that ensued. The large area of Punjab that went to Pakistan was ethnically cleared of any significant Sikh Population even though many of their historic shrines remain there.
  • The assassination of Indira Gandhi triggered a genocide against the Sikhs. Inquiries by even state agencies point to a highly planned pogrom with backing of the administration and police rather than any spontaneous outpouring of murderous grief. According to the Nanavati Commission report, "...The attacks were made in a systematic manner and without much fear of the police; almost suggesting that they were assured that they would not be harmed while committing those acts and even thereafter....".[30][31]
  • There have been targeted killings directed against the Sikhs in Indian Kashmir[citation needed] as well - see Chittisinghpura massacre.
  • Many Sikhs object to the wording of Article 25 of the constitution of India that seems to term them as Hindus and many Hindu personal laws being applied to them. However, the same article also guarantees the right of members of the Sikh faith to bear a Kirpan[32]

Situation of Christians[edit]

From 1964 to 1996, at least 38 incidents of violence against Christians were reported. In 1997, 24 such incidents were reported. Since 1998, Christians in India have faced a wave of violence.[33] In 1998 alone, 90 incidents were reported.[34] According to a Human rights Watch report that was published in September 1999, the number of incidents of anti-Christian violence rose in the months following the victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in March 1998.[35] Attacks against Christians in Odisha, have occurred in recent years in response to missionary activity by Christians. In a well-publicised case, Graham Staines, an Australian Christian missionary was burnt to death along with his two sons Timothy (aged 9) and Philip (aged 7), while they were sleeping in his station wagon at Manoharpur village in Keonjhar district in Orissa in January 1999. He was running the Evangelical Missionary Society of Mayurbhanj, an Australian missionary society.[35] His "distribution of beef & desecrating Hindu Deities" was the alleged excuse for this attack. In 2003, Dara Singh was convicted of leading the gang responsible. In January, 2014 a pastor, O Sanjeeva Rao was killed by Hindu extremists from the group 'Hindu Vahini', his wife was also severely injured by them. The president of the Hindu Vahini in Andhra Pradesh said in a newspaper that they were not responsible for the attack, though it was proven after a thorough investigation by the police.[36]

Christian Indians have been threatened by Hindu nationalists with either conversion to Hinduism or displacement.[37] In Madhya Pradesh a church was destroyed and bibles were burnt. Several community leaders said the attacks on Christians started to increase when the Hindu-nationalist rose to power back.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ article 15 of India Constitution
  2. ^ (Rigveda 1:164:46) “Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti” – Truth is one; sages call it many names
  3. ^ (Maha Upanishad: Chapter 6, Verse 72) "Vasudhaiva kutumbakam" – The entire world is a one big family
  4. ^ de Lingen, John; Ramsurrun, Pahlad. An Introduction to The Hindu Faith. Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. p. 2. ISBN 978-81-207-4086-0. 
  5. ^ Murthy, BS (2003). Puppets of Faith: theory of communal strife. Bulusu Satyanarayana Murthy. p. 7. ISBN 978-81-901911-1-1. 
  6. ^ David E. Ludden (1996). Contesting the Nation: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 257–258. ISBN 0-8122-1585-0. 
  7. ^ Rajni Kothari (1998). Communalism in Indian Politics. Rainbow Publishers. pp. 134. ISBN 978-81-86962-00-8. 
  8. ^ "INDOLOGY archives – March 2001 (#143)". 
  9. ^ Tying bonds of unity at Guru ki Maseet |
  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. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ "Laws & Policies". All India Christian Council. Retrieved 2007-12-29. 
  14. ^ See Sebastian Kim, In Search of Identity: Debates on Religious Conversion in India (Delhi & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b c d Osuri, Goldie (2013). "The Concern for Sovereignty in the Politics of Anti-conversion". Religion Compass 7 (9): 385–393. doi:10.1111/rec3.12064. 
  17. ^ "Conversions harder in India state 26/07/2006". BBC News. 26 July 2006. 
  18. ^ Mohammad, Faisal (4 August 2006). "Christian anger at conversion law 04/08/2006". BBC News. 
  19. ^ "WorldWide Religious News-Himachal enforces anti-conversion law". 22 February 2007. 
  20. ^ Let secular parties support anti-conversion bill: Amit Shah, Times of India, 21 December 2014
  21. ^ TOI on International Religious Freedom Report 2003, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour of the US State Department
  22. ^ Pallone introduces resolution condemning Human rights violation against Kashmiri Pandits, United States House of Representatives, 2006-02-15
  23. ^ Expressing the sense of Congress that the Government of the Republic of India and the State Government of Jammu and Kashmir should take immediate steps to remedy the situation of the Kashmiri Pandits and should act to ensure the physical, political, and economic security of this embattled community. HR Resolution 344, United States House of Representatives, 2006-02-15
  24. ^ Bhaumik, Subhir (18 April 2000). "'Church backing Tripura rebels'". BBC News. Retrieved 2006-08-26. 
  25. ^ Christianity threat looms over Bhuvan Pahar Assam Times – 23 June 2009
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ a b "50 Shia mourners detained in Srinagar on Muharram day". Rediff. Retrieved 13 April 2014. 
  29. ^ "In Pictures: Mourners teargassed, arrested on Muharram in Kashmir". Kashmir Dispatch. Retrieved 13 April 2014. 
  30. ^ Nanavati Commission report |
  31. ^ Rajiv's infamous justification, "When a big tree falls..." |
  32. ^ The Constitution of India, Right to Freedom of religion, Article 25 |
  33. ^ Stanley, Alessandra (6 November 1999). "Pope Lands in India Amid Rise in Anti-Christian Violence". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 April 2010. 
  34. ^ Vinay Lal. "Anti-Christian Violence in India". Manas: India and Its Neighbors. UCLA College of Letters and Science. 
  35. ^ a b "Anti-Christian Violence on the Rise in India". Human Rights Watch. 29 September 1999. Attacks Against Christians in India, details violence against Christians in the months ahead of the country's national parliamentary elections in September and October 1999, and in the months following electoral victory by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party, known as the BJP) in the state of Gujarat. Attacks against Christians throughout the country have increased significantly since the BJP began its rule at the center in March 1998. They include the killings of priests, the raping of nuns, and the physical destruction of Christian institutions, schools, churches, colleges, and cemeteries. 
  36. ^ The Staines case verdict V. Venkatesan, Frontline Magazine, 11–23 Oct 2003
  37. ^ "Hindu Threat to Christians: Convert or Flee". The New York Times. October 12, 2008. 
  38. ^

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