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Outrage on conversion misses the point: No community is entitled to be close-minded

One person converting another is a political act under the garb of exercising religious freedom. However, any person’s informed decision to embrace another faith out of their free will, untainted by extraneous factors, is and should be welcomed as a fundamental right.

Written by Jagvir Singh | Updated: December 30, 2020 8:50:08 am
In today’s era, religion ought to have no role in social, political and economic spheres and should relate only to spiritual aspects.

I disagree with The Indian Express’s editorial on the matter of laws on inter-faith marriages and conversion (‘Strike one’, IE, December 1). The last couple of months have seen many high courts frowning upon the state’s interference in interfaith marriages, being matters of personal choices. Alongside, several BJP-ruled states framed laws to regulate such marriages and any associated conversions. Are these pieces of legislation legally and logically viable? To answer this question, the matter must be viewed through two prisms: One, conversion of a bride before or after marriage; and two, an interfaith marriage without conversion.

An interfaith marriage where the bride converts has three key elements: One, a girl has to convert because she has to align with the religion and “culture” of the boy. Does this not reek of male chauvinism and patriarchy, which feminists across the globe have waged war against? They try to rationalise this by using disingenuous sophistry, that women have minds of their own and thus, can make their own decisions. Yes, they can. Women are not being subject to criticism here. Nor are women in traditional households, who eat only after their husbands and/or touch their feet and/or are generally obsequious to them, either out of religious belief, love or devotion. We treat such husbands and the patriarchy surrounding them as criminal. Doesn’t a man who expects that his wife should convert to his religion suffer from the same malaise?

Second, when a man has even a slight expectation of conversion, does it not exhibit his discomfort, for whatever reasons, to live with a person of another faith? This is bigotry.

Third, conversion is predicated upon an abominable notion of the other faith being inferior and thus, comes from a community-level supremacist attitude. One fails to understand how the liberals reconcile these facts and do not deem the practice communal.

I firmly endorse B R Ambedkar and believe that to dismantle societal divides such as caste, religion, race and ethnicity, more and more inter-community marriages must take place and are largely accepted by society. Consequently, should an interfaith marriage, sans conversion, be welcome? As a principle, yes. However, is the religion of the bride relevant? Ideally, not at all. The fact of a girl being from one community in a marriage and the groom being from another should be coincidental. But it is not. That is what causes the inter-community schism.

Due to a clear ban on the marriage of Muslim women to men of other faiths in their scriptures, and a majority of the community adhering to them and women having been steeped in the religion since childhood, in interfaith marriages involving Muslims, the girls mostly come from non-Muslim communities. Girls from non-Muslim communities are raised in a more liberal milieu, faith consciousness not being that important for them, especially in non-spiritual matters. Thus, though marriage is fundamentally an act of individual choice, at the macro and communities’ levels, marriages involving Muslim men are viewed by other communities as deliberate attempts to lure and deceive women from other communities, while restricting their own women from marrying outside the community. An honest liberal and feminist intellectual shall see this organic mental restraint on a Muslim girl as being completely devoid of her “agency”.

How are we to deal with these issues? We need laws regulating conversion. One person converting another is a political act under the garb of exercising religious freedom. However, any person’s informed decision to embrace another faith out of their free will, untainted by extraneous factors, is and should be welcomed as a fundamental right. Conversely, if the conversion is for other reasons, including as a precondition for or consequence of marriage, it should be outlawed. To ensure that this does not happen, a marriage before and after two years of conversion should be void, irrespective of the original religion of the convert.

In today’s era, religion ought to have no role in social, political and economic spheres and should relate only to spiritual aspects. It should be pronounced irrelevant in marital unions. All religious communities should raise their children with a sense of the irrelevance of religion in dealing and communicating with fellow citizens, including while choosing life partners. But, if a religious community deems it impossible to afford its womenfolk the agency to select partners of their choice, for religious compulsions or otherwise, for the sake of communal amity, it should forbid its men from forging an alliance with women of other faiths as well. Honest inter-community dialogue will work wonders.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 30, 2020, under the title “Double standard on conversion”. The writer is a senior lawyer based in Delhi

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