Anti-Conversion Laws and the Mobilising of Coercive Power

The anti-conversion laws are reconfiguring RSS cadres and Hindu right-wing organisations’ fight against conversions and interfaith relationships into spaces of legitimate action.

On December 1, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad launched a nationwide campaign against ‘love jihad’ and forced religious conversion, seeking a national law against these alleged activities and accelerating its efforts as a vigilante group and self-styled paramilitary force to fight it. This comes alongside the central government taking a formal stance (in an ongoing Supreme Court petition) denying any incongruence between Article 25 and the enactment of anti-conversion laws. Within days, the Gujarat government also filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court supporting stricter regulation of conversions.

This concerted push for a nationwide law to govern conversion – and consequently, marriage and family – is happening despite several Bharatiya Janata Party-led states already having passed anti-conversion marriage laws since 2020.

Objections from Christians and Muslims across India reflect patterns of harassment and wrongful incarceration that derive legitimacy from these laws. At least 302 attacks against Christians took place in the first seven months of 2022, according to the United Christian Forum. Uttar Pradesh reported the highest tally of 80 incidents, many of which invoked forced conversions as justification. Fatehpur, for example, where local VHP and Bajrang Dal chapters have accused Christians of “conversion rackets” for several years, saw unprecedented levels of police action on these claims throughout 2022.

The anti-conversion laws are reconfiguring RSS cadres and Hindu right wing organisations’ fight against conversions and interfaith relationships, into spaces of legitimate action. Recent activities include demanding data from the government regarding how many Hindus have converted under the Act (mandatory public notices are trespassing on privacy), openly conducting ward/district level drives to make regions ‘conversion-free’, increased mobilisations against the construction of churches and mosques, even demolishing these structures if deemed necessary, and accelerating coercive drives to convert Muslims, Christians and Adivasi communities to Hinduism.

Also read: Modi Government’s Stand on ‘Right to Convert’ Is an Attack on the Freedom of Conscience

The regime is formalising its hostility towards converts. The Union government just acceded on principle, betraying the Constitution; Uttarakhand’s recently-amended, more stringent law is based on the UP law; Madhya Pradesh is set to move Supreme Court to challenge the high court’s interim order calling the state’s law unconstitutional; demand for a ‘love jihad’ law in Maharashtra disingenuously invokes the Shraddha Walkar case. The on-ground project of solidifying boundaries between religious groups is well underway.

Inter-religious and inter-caste marriages in India are minuscule: the National Family Health Survey 2015-16 listed 12.6% of marriages as inter-caste and only 2.6% interfaith, meaning that social dynamics have been essentially frozen in place. India does not structurally favour inter-religious marriage but it must now consider conversion for marriage a crime. This is not simply an extension of conservative control over gender and intimacy, it is a process of racialising different religious communities, freezing them as separate ethnic groups. Regimes fixated on ethnic purity invoke ‘traditional religious values’ to disguise their need for racialised citizens, not dissimilar to Israeli apartheid – here, arguments based on fear of demographic change are already making their way into judgements related to the ‘love jihad’ laws.

According to the Union government, this legislation is necessitated by the menace of organised, sophisticated and large-scale illegal conversions, targeting women and backward classes. The state-wise laws are claimed to be necessitated by the same massive-scale conversions, which is unsupported by data. In reality, women are important sites of battle for the Hindu right, vessels for the nurturing of a pure Hindu race. On the other hand, criminalising ‘mass conversions’ targets Dalit communities, whose conversions to escape caste oppression directly threaten Brahminical order, not just racialised boundaries between citizens.

Also read: Using ‘Love Jihad’ as a Rallying Cry, Sanatan Sanstha Attempts to Communalise the Konkan

Colonial governments essentialised religious practices and communities to create governable populations, and the present-day regime remains just as ignorant of the fluidity of faith and faith-based practices in India. Should these laws be allowed to continue to exist, let alone be strengthened by a nationwide policy, both institutions and everyday practices of faith will be micromanaged by state administrations and vigilante groups – two forces with increasingly collapsed distinctions, both of whom have taken up the cause of naturalising the Hindu patriarchal family. Even now, no political party openly advocates for inter-community marriage because the submerging of caste identity in particular would be damaging to electoral strategy. This stage of Hindutva statecraft has strategic density – the various anti-conversion laws read as though formed through legal mimicry of each other, and are the consequence of years of work by right wing groups. Resisting religious hegemony must then not only happen in courtrooms, but also at neighbourhood and the community level, against segregated housing, in building family and kinship networks, and it must account for protecting Dalit peoples’ right to convert.

Shambhavi Madan researches citizenship, urbanisation and technology, and also works with Galileo Ideas.