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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 29, July 15, 2023

Logic and Necessity of Anti-Conversion Laws in Tribal Dominant Areas in India | Chhotelal Kumar

Saturday 15 July 2023


by Chhotelal Kumar *


This piece delves into the question of Anti-conversion laws in the Schedule area (Fifth and Sixth) and tries to look at the possible logic of the enaction of these laws. It argues and contrasts the shift in Indian politics with the decline of Congress and the rise of BJP and its correlations with conversion Laws. With BJP as the largest party in recent years at the centre and state level, it is trying to locate the recent upsurge in demand for the formulation of Anti-Conversion laws. Furthermore importantly, this article questions the necessity of Anti-conversion laws in Tribal/Adivasi areas.

Key Words

Anti-Conversion Laws/Freedom of Religion Acts; Tribals/Adivasis; Schedule Area; BJP; Congress; Christian Missionary; Tribal Religion; Hinduism; Deprivation and displacement; Schedule Tribes

Adivasis, Schedule Tribes, autochthonous, and Indigenous are other terms for Tribal communities. Different Tribes identify themselves in various categories, in the mainland, Adivasis are predominant. Tribal people comprise around 8.6% of the country’s overall population (census 2011). More than 80% of the Tribal population lives in mainland India, most of whom belong to these seven states (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Gujrat, and Rajasthan) (Shah 1999). Tribes are multiethnic communities made up of several clans. They also differ in terms of sociocultural beliefs and behaviours. It has been hotly contested whether or not Tribals practice any religion. Tribal communities practise Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and other Tribal religions. Popular Tribal religions include Sarna and Koyapun. The Tribals of Chotanagpur and the Gond in central India follow Sarna and Koyapun, respectively. These faiths were frequently reduced to simple nature worship and animism. The Tribal religion is typically not regarded as a religion because it is not institutionalised like mainstream religions (Hinduism, Islam, and others). The adherents of these religions are viewed as primitive, and by embracing Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, individuals can become more civilised. The Indian constitution does not recognise the Tribal/Adivasi religion as distinct. Instead, they are clubbed under the "broad category of ’Hinduism’ "(Xaxa 2017). It is argued that this misplaced administrative inclusion of their religious inclination or beliefs deprive them of their Identity.

Anti-Conversion Laws in Past

Conversion laws have a long history that dates back to colonial India. In the latter part of the 1930s and 1940s, during the British Colonial era, Hindu princely kingdoms first enacted laws prohibiting religious conversion. To protect Hindu religious Identity from British missionaries, these states passed legislation. Such rules were in place in over a dozen princely realms, including Kota, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Raigarh, Patna, Surguja, Udaipur, and Kalahandi. The Raigarh State Conversion Act of 1936, the Surguja State Apostasy Act of 1942, and the Udaipur State Anti-Conversion Act of 1946 are a few of the legislation from that era (Ahmed 2017). Following India’s independence, the Parliament proposed a number of anti-conversion bills, but none were passed. First, in 1954, the Indian Conversion (Regulation and Recording) Bill was presented to enforce the "licensing of missionaries and the registration of conversion with government officials"(Ahmed 2017). However, the bill could not win a majority in the lower house of Parliament. Following failed Union (or central) level attempts to establish an anti-conversion law, such laws started to be adopted in the 1960s by the states.

India’s Freedom of Religion Acts (also known as ’Anti-Conversion laws’) are state-level laws that control unlawful religious conversions. The states that passed them initially were Orissa (1967) and Madhya Pradesh(1968). Arunachal Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Karnataka are now the ten states out of twenty-eight that have Freedom of Religion Acts legislation in place.

Logic Behind the Anti-Conversion Laws

The enaction of Anti-Conversion laws can be understood from the multiple entry points. It has been proven by multiple credible research that religious conversion is not affecting the composition of any community. In the recent report on religious conversion by Pew Research Centre (2021), Religious conversion is rare in India; to the extent that it occurs, Hindus gain as many people as they lose. In India, proselytising has been controversial, and some states have laws banning it. This is because lower caste members have been known to convert to other religions, particularly Christianity. The first is Post Colonial anxiety, which resonates with colonial India, fear of division of India. It had relevance during colonial India and just a few decades in post-colonial India after Independence. However, today, it has no impact other than falsely constructing such fear. The second point is a civilisational perspective, where Hindu Civilisationalist perceives any other religion (especially monist religions like Islam and Christianity) as a threat to its vision of building a civilisational Hindu state. This monistic conception of the nation-state deems citizenship equivalent to being part of the larger Hindu fold. Christianity itself, a civilisational religion often associated with Westernisation, poses a potent threat to the Hindu Civilisation state in the eyes of believers. Third, conversion or threat of conversion usually occurs in the lower castes or outcastes, and they constitute the majority in India. These caste groups are located at the lowest level of the socioeconomic hierarchy and suffer discrimination in multiple ways every day. Converting to other religions as an exit from discrimination inscribed by the practising religion or to avail the economic benefits of practising other religions (especially Christianity where lower castes or outcastes/Tribals get several benefits) are the main motivations behind the conversions. However, it might be the case that they practice different religions and report legally different religions. This is the case in mostly lower castes, where they lose all the benefits of reservation if they convert to another religion (Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism). Only Sikh and Buddhist Dalits are eligible for the same benefits as Hindu Dalits.

Out of the Ten States, as I have mentioned in the above discussion, six states are enlisted in Fifth Schedule, and one belongs to the Six Schedule. One ponders why so many fifth-schedule states enacted these Anti-Conversion Laws. We need to discuss this in detail to understand the logic behind the conversion laws. The First wave of conversion laws in the late 60s and 70s started because of post-colonial anxiety and pressure from Hindu leaders (Bauman 2008). Soon after the Independence Indian government was very suspicious of Christian missionaries (western-based) and their engagement with Tribals. During this period, Tribals were involved in multiple protests against the government, and it was suspected of missionary involvement. Even a report by Justice Niyogi, officially ‘The Niyogi Committee Report On Christian Missionary Activities’ (1956), constituted by the Madhya Pradesh government, insisted on checking Missionary activities which are converting large numbers of Tribals and increasing secessionist tendencies, either for a separate state or country. The first anti-conversion law, also known as the Freedom of Religion Act, was passed in Odisha in 1967, followed by Madhya Pradesh in 1968, Andhra Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh in 1978. Despite passing legislation, Arunachal Pradesh never enacted the rules to enforce it on the ground. Some other states also attempted to pass ’anti-conversion laws’ but could not get support from the Governor or President. This holds true for the Rajasthan anti-conversion bill (2006). In the case of Tamil Nadu, it was enacted in 2002, but after opposition, it was repealed in 2006. The contents and structure of these laws are more or less similar. Just in the case of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan, it does not address reconversion to the ’native’ faith. All these laws aim to prevent the conversion through fraudulent, forceful, or allurement. Nevertheless, this wave of anti-conversion laws has more to do with fear of suspicion of the newly Independent Indian state than some idea of a civilisational state.

With the decline of Congress and the rise of the BJP, it changed the nature of politics, which in turn changed the Indian state’s relations with its minority. In the 80s and early 90s, the target of conversion laws was Muslims, but in the late 90s, it shifted towards Christians also. Christian missionaries who were either based in the West in the early stages or in South India in the latter stages of the 1970s and 1980s were the target of conversion legislation. Earlier Conversion laws in Fifth Schedule Areas were motivated by the fear of large conversion of lower castes and Tribals. Orissa’s Freedom of Religion Act, 1967; Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968, and Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978 can be read in light of the above discussion. However, with the decline of Congress and the rise of the BJP in National and State politics, the politics of conversion also changed. Now, Muslims have become more or less equally the centre of attention. However, in Tribal areas, Christians Missionaries remain the focus. The Freedom of Religion Act in Chattisgarh(1968, 2006), Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act (2003, 2021), and Rajasthan Freedom of Religion Bill (2006 did not get the Governor’s assent), and Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act (2017) falls under this category. Recently more and more states are showing interest in Anti-Conversion legislation, including Manipur, which is considering similar laws. And even Home Minister Amit Shah has reiterated a call for national anti-conversion laws.

Unwantedness of Anti-Conversion Laws

But these laws/bills have utterly ignored the fact that the present Missionaries are not from West/Foreign countries or South India (Xaxa 2017). Instead, they are local people. Now Christianity in Tribal areas is not complete indoctrination of outside practices. Rather, they modified their practices with their Tribal culture, and importantly their focus was not on converting people. The tribal Christian population in the mainland remain more or less the same.

Freedom of Religion Act employs vague terms and definitions(allurement, forcefully, own will, and many others), making minorities susceptible to harassment and arrest. It is challenging to carve out these definitions in the real world, and it becomes susceptible to manipulations. These Freedom of Religion laws/bills in the fifth Schedule have political goals to achieve. Most Schedule Five and Six states have very lush forests and are rich in valuable resources. Non Tribal government, through the narrative of development and prosperity, displaces tribal groups. And in doing that, Tribals resist any such takeover of their land. They consider land as an integral part of their Identity. Christians Tribes are educated and more aware of their customary or constitutional rights.

In most cases, resistance against any exploitation was led by Christian tribals. So to exploit the resources and obstruct the solidarity, there is a need to push intra-conflict with the Adivasi community. In recent years with the rise of the right-wing party BJP in state and national politics, they have been using this existing fault line to mobilise the majority (Baviskar 2005). To mobilise the majority of non-Christian tribes BJP is pitting one against the other. In doing so, BJP did not just benefit electorally but also fulfil its aims of building a civilisational Hindutva state. Here it is essential to highlight the role played by RSS at the root level. RSS considers tribes ’Vanvasi’, meaning those people live in the forest. They consider them backwards Hindus who live in Jungle. The RSS act as a social extension of the BJP, and the BJP act as a political extension of the RSS.


Anti-conversion laws have a long history; several princely states enacted them to prevent conversion by wrongful means. In post-colonial India, believing in secularism, then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru never supported the anti-conversion laws at the national level. But facing heavy protests from the Tribal people made the state government suspicious of Christian Missionaries. Accompanying the demand of Hindu nationalists and fear of a new challenge to the newly Independent India, state governments started to enact Anti-conversion laws. But with the shift in Indian politics with a decline of Congress and the rise of BJP. The aims of anti-conversion laws also shifted; they became an expression of majoritarian politics. Many Schedule (Fifth and Sixth) states have anti-conversion laws, and it tells us something. These states are rich in forests and other important resources, and with solidarity among tribes, it is difficult to exploit them. Anti-conversion laws in the schedule area are such an example and simultaneously serve the larger Hindutva agenda of the Hindu state.

*(Author: Chhotelal Kumar, a PhD scholar at the Centre for Political Studies JNU New Delhi)


  • Bauman, C. M (2020): “Introduction: Anti-Christian Violence in Global Context”, In Anti-Christian Violence in India (pp. 1-26). Cornell University Press.
  • Baviskar, Amita (2005): “Adivasi encounters with Hindu nationalism in MP”, Economic and Political Weekly, 40, no.48, pp. 5105-5113.
  • Sahgal, Evans, et al. (2021): Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation. In Pew Research Centre. Pew Research Centre. Retrieved March 27, 2023, from
  • Shah, Ghanshyam (1990): “Social Movements in India: A Review of the Literature”, New Delhi: Sage Publication.
  • Xaxa, Virginius (2017): “Voiceless in Jharkhand: Freedom of Religion Act, 2017”, Economic and Political Weekly, No. 40, pp. 23-26.
  • Xaxa, VIrginius (2020): “Tribal Politics in India: From Movement to Institutionalism”, Handbook of Tribal Politics in India, New Delhi: Sage Publication.
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