The Centre on Monday told the Supreme Court that the issue of forced religious conversion "is a menace", and it is cognizant of the gravity and the seriousness of the issue.
A bench comprising justices M.R. Shah and C.T. Ravikumar, at the beginning of the hearing, said "this is a serious issue". Citing Centre's reply in the matter, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said, this "is a menace".
Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, appearing on behalf of an intervenor, submitted that the petition is not maintainable and pointed out that the same petition was filed twice earlier and then withdrawn.
Petitioner advocate Ashwini Upadhyay opposed the plea for intervention saying that there will be a flood of applications if the present application is allowed.
The bench scheduled the matter for further hearing on December 5, as the matter came up for a hearing when the court was rising for the day.
The Ministry of Home Affairs, in an affidavit, said it is cognizant of the gravity and the seriousness of the issue raised in the present writ petition, and enactments are necessary for protecting cherished rights of vulnerable sections of the society including women and economically and socially backward classes.
"It is submitted that that public order is a state subject and in pursuance to the same various states over the years passed enactments seeking to curb the practices highlighted in the present petition."
The Centre said nine state governments already have legislation in place on the present subject -- Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, and Haryana.
It said that the reliefs sought in the present petition would be taken up in all seriousness by it and appropriate steps shall be taken as it is cognizant of the menace.
The Centre's response came on a plea by Upadhyay against fraudulent religious conversion and religious conversion by intimidation, threatening, and deceivingly luring through gifts and monetary benefits, as it offends Articles 14, 21, and 25.
The plea claimed that if such conversions were not checked, Hindus would soon become a minority in India.
In the affidavit, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs said: "It is submitted that the right to freedom of religion does not include a fundamental right to convert other people to a particular religion. The said right certainly does not include the right to convert an individual through fraud, deception, coercion, allurement, or other such means."
The Central government said the petitioner has highlighted a large number of instances carried out in an organized, systematic and sophisticated manner of conversion of vulnerable citizens in the country through fraud, deception, coercion, allurement, or other such means.
It further added that the meaning and purport of the word 'propagate' falling under Article 25 of the Constitution was discussed and debated in great detail in the constituent assembly and the inclusion of the said word was passed by the constituent assembly only after the clarification that the fundamental right under Article 25 would not include the right to convert.
The Centre said the apex court has held that the word 'propagate' does not envisage the right to convert a person rather is like the positive right to spread one religion by exposition of its tenets.
"This Court further held that fraudulent or induced conversion impinges upon the right to freedom of conscience of an individual apart from hampering public order and, therefore, the state was well within its power to regulate/ restrict the same," it added.
On November 14, the Supreme Court said forced religious conversion is a "very serious issue", and may affect the security of the nation and asked the Centre to make its stand clear on what steps can be taken to curb forced conversions.
The top court said there is freedom of religion, but no freedom of forced conversion.
The Supreme Court asked the Centre to get information from all the states regarding the steps taken by them in connection with forced conversions. (KB/IANS)