The AP Freedom of Religion Act, 1978 – It’s not against a particular religion

[ Nani Bath ]
Jawaharlal Nehru’s Panchsheel, the five principles for tribal development, remained a guiding force for the administrators during the NEFA days. One of the principles envisaged was that the people should be allowed to “develop along the lines of their own genius”. The general understanding of the policy makers was that the tribal religion has its own beauty, which needed to be guarded zealously and promoted, if necessary.
Varrier Elwin, the chief architect of Nehru’s Panchsheel, had suggested four mantras in order to ensure religious neutrality among the officials and social workers serving in NEFA.
First, he should study and try to understand the religion of the areas where he lives. Secondly, he should extend to tribal religion that attitude of sincere respect which we are trying to give to tribal life and institutions generally. He should never on any account criticize or laugh at any tribal ceremony or belief. Third, he should be careful how he talks and about the words he uses. We should not speak of ‘animism’ but of ‘Wancho religion’ or the ‘Adi religion’, etc. Lastly, whenever we refer to the Supreme Being, or administer oaths, we should use the local name.
In 1963, the Adviser to the Governor of Assam wrote to all Political Officers (now Deputy Commissioner), outlining the general policy of the Administration with regard to religion. The main points emphasized are that “India being a secular democratic State the officers of the government are expected to be strictly neutral in their approach to religious questions concerning the people within their jurisdiction”.
The letter indicated that the activities of propagandists of any religion are undesirable in NEFA for various reasons. Firstly, they are contrary to “our fundamental policy of not imposing our ways of thought and action on the people”. In the second place, he quotes Prime Minister Pt Nehru, ‘When evangelical work gets associated with some form of condemnation of Indian culture, then it creates conflict and difficulties and is resented by many people’.
The Adviser’s letter further notes that communal religious proselytization goes against the Administration’s policy of “uniting our people with one another and with rest of India”.
All the Political Officers were directed that the land for building religious institution should be given only with previous sanction of the local Administration. It also directed that no new centre of religious activity should be allowed to be started or such activity allowed into fresh villages without specific permission of the Administration.
The Agency Council urged upon the Government of India to take suitable steps to protect and promote the indigenous faiths of various tribes of the areas. A resolution to this effect was passed in 1969.
In October 1972, the Pradesh Council passed another resolution, which reads: “a person belonging to any indigenous tribal community of Arunachal Pradesh who renounces the traditional belief and or faiths should be deemed to have deserted the community or tribe and to have forfeited all facilities, benefits, advantages, considerations deriving from his/her being a member of that tribe/community”.
The Arunachal Pradesh Development cum Cultural Convention held at Pasighat in 1976 passed a similar resolution requesting the Government of Arunachal Pradesh to take immediate steps to safeguard the indigenous faith and culture of various tribes.
The first elected Legislative Assembly of Arunachal Pradesh in 1978 unanimously adopted a Private Member’s resolution(by Aken Lego) urging upon the government to take immediate legislative measures on the basis on the resolution passed by the then Pradesh Council in 1972.
It reads: “this assembly resolves that a full-fledged government department for cultural affairs be set up and the resolution adopted by the Pradesh Council on 5th Oct’72 and the Cultural Convention in 1976 should urgently be implemented with a view to promoting and maintaining the age-old cultural heritage of the territory”.
The same Assembly passed the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill on the 19th May 1978. It was presented to the then Lt. Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, K.A.A Raja for his assent. The Bill was reserved for the consideration of the President of India because of protests from some quarters.
The Bill received presidential assent on October 25, 1978. It became the law of the State which extends to whole of the territory. Since the government did not make rules for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of this Act, it remained in the state of ‘coma’.
The Act makes it a punishable offence to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religious faith to another by means of ‘force’, ‘fraud’ or ‘inducement’. Any act of conversion has to be brought to the knowledge of the Deputy Commissioner of the district concern.

Constitutionality of the Act
Prem Khandu Thungon, the then Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, reacted strongly to those leaders who were attempting to scuttle the passage of the Bill. Thungon reminded them that the Bill was not an infringement upon the fundamental rights of a person to propagate one’s own religious beliefs nor did it debar voluntary acceptance by individuals of any faith. It simply sought to prohibit conversion by “force, fraud and inducement”.
Right to freedom of religion (freedom to profess, practice, and propagate) is guaranteed under Articles 25-28 of our constitution. Article 18 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees everybody the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
DD Basu, a constitutional expert, comments, “It is amazing that some Christian leaders assert that the word ‘propagate’ in Art. 25(1) gives them a fundamental right to convert people of other Faiths into Christianity, by any means”.
The question of whether the right to practice and propagate one’s religion also include the right to convert was examined by the Supreme Court in Rev. Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh. The Court upheld the validity of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967 and Madhya Pradesh Dhrama Swatantrya Adhiniya, 1968.
The Court laid down the following propositions of law:
(i) The right to ‘propagate’ gives to each member of every religion the right to spread or disseminate the tenets of his religion, but it would not include the right to convert another, because each man has the same freedom of ‘conscience’ guaranteed by that very provision.
(ii) The equal freedom of conscience, belonging to each man, under Article 25(1), means that he has the freedom to choose and hold any faith of his choice and not to be converted into another religion by means of force, fraud, inducement or allurement.
(iii) Even assuming that a particular religion had the right to propagate its tenets by any means, including conversion, – the state has the right and duty to intervene if such activity of conversion offended against ‘public order, morality or health’, because the guarantee of freedom of religion in Art. 25(1) is subject to the limitations of ‘public order, morality or health’.