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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Religious Freedom & Equality


What are the provisions relating to religious freedom and equality in the Indian political system? Does the Indian Constitution specifically bar the conversion of people to other religions? Do the Hindu converts from Scheduled Caste community have the right to claim the benefits for Hindus under the Constitution?
The Preamble of the Indian Constitution proclaims India as a secular country. The Indian secularism is based on the principle that there is no religion of the State and every citizen is free to practice any religion or propagate it.
 
There are several provisions in the Fundamental Rights that aim at attaining secularism in the country. Articles 25 to 28 of the Constitution specifically lay down that the Indian State observes an attitude of neutrality and impartiality towards all religions. No taxes can be imposed for practising or promoting any particular religion. Further, it also provides that no religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly funded by the State. Every citizen has the right to profess, practise and propagate his own religion. All religious groups also possess the rights to establish the institutions for religious and charitable purpose, manage own affairs in the matters of religion, own and acquire property and administer such property in accordance with law.
 
Article 15 of the Constitution provides that there cannot be any discrimination on the grounds of religion, caste, race, sex etc. Similarly, Article 16 of the Constitution puts every citizen on equal footing.
 
A question generally asked is whether the Constitution of the country specifically bars the conversions to another religion. The legal position is that every one has the right to practise and propagate any religion. This means that the propagating person can bring out the merits of his religion to the notice of others and if others are convinced, they can decide to switch over to that particular religion voluntarily. No one can, however, be forcibly converted to another religion.
 
A question is raised at times about the claims to the reservation benefits by the erstwhile Hindus from Scheduled Caste community, converted to Christianity, Buddhism or Islam. The Constitution recognizes the Scheduled Castes only in two religious communities viz. Hindus and Sikhs, as the caste system was traditionally prevalent only in these two religions.  Casteism is not practised in the religions like Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. Scheduled Caste Order of 1950, framed under the Constitution lays down that a person shall not be deemed to be a Scheduled Caste if he professes a religion other than Hinduism or Sikhism. Allowing such benefits to the converts by the government would make it an abettor of conversion, thereby violating the constitutional scheme of secularism.
 
At the same time, if any convert falls under the category of Other Backward Classes (OBC), he could be entitled to the social and other privileges otherwise admissible to such people as per the constitutional provisions.

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