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Legal Implications Of Conversion On Burial Lands

This paper explores the legal implications of religious conversion on burial rights in India. Through an analysis of constitutional provisions, statutory laws, and judicial precedents, it examines the extent to which conversion affects an individual's burial rights, particularly in cases involving communal burial grounds managed by religious denominations. Key considerations include the right to religious freedom, equality before the law, and the duty of the state to protect minority rights.

The paper delves into challenges faced by converts in accessing burial grounds, potential conflicts with religious authorities, and avenues for legal redress. By highlighting the complexities of navigating burial rights post-conversion, this study contributes to discussions on religious pluralism, individual autonomy, and legal frameworks for safeguarding fundamental rights.

Religious conversion is a deeply personal decision that holds profound implications for an individual's life, including their burial rights. In the Indian context, where religious diversity is a defining characteristic, the legal implications of conversion on burial rights have garnered significant attention. This paper delves into the complex legal landscape surrounding burial rights post-conversion, exploring the intersection of religious freedom, communal burial practices, and constitutional protections.

Against the backdrop of India's rich cultural tapestry, communal burial grounds often serve as repositories of religious and cultural identity, managed by religious denominations or community organizations. However, the question arises: how does religious conversion impact an individual's access to these communal burial grounds? Are converts entitled to burial rites consistent with their newly adopted faith, or are they bound by the norms of their former religious community?

By analysing constitutional provisions, statutory laws, and judicial precedents, this study seeks to unravel the legal complexities inherent in navigating burial rights post-conversion. It examines the tension between an individual's right to religious conversion and the communal norms governing burial practices, while also considering broader principles of equality, minority rights, and state obligations.

Through a comprehensive exploration of these issues, this paper aims to contribute to a deeper understanding of the legal implications of religious conversion on burial rights in India, offering insights into the challenges faced by converts and the evolving contours of constitutional protections in matters of faith and burial practices.

Religious Autonomy and Constitutional Protections:

Religious autonomy, a fundamental aspect of individual freedom, finds constitutional protection in many countries, including India. Under constitutional frameworks, individuals have the right to profess, practice, and propagate their religion of choice, free from state interference or coercion. This principle of religious autonomy is enshrined in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to freedom of religion.

Additionally, Article 26 grants religious denominations the autonomy to manage their affairs, including religious practices, rituals, and administration of properties. These constitutional protections ensure that individuals and religious communities can freely exercise their faith and maintain their religious identity without undue interference from the state or other external forces.

Religion is a system of belief or doctrine which are regarded by those who profess that religion as conducive to their spiritual wellbeing.[1] Religion is essentially a matter of faith of an individual and the State must treat every religion with equal respect [2]and protect all religion but interfere with no one.[3]

Article 25(1) of the Constitution provides two fold freedom to an individual, firstly, the freedom of conscience which is an absolute inner freedom of an individual to mould one's religious with god in whatever way he choose and secondly, the freedom to profess, practice and propagate any religion of one's faith. But these rights are not unfettered [4]and are restricted by three restrictions under Article 25(2), namely public order, health and morality.

These rights are also internationally recognized under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights to both of which India is a signatory and under Article 51 of the Constitution there's a directive principle for the state to foster these international conventions.

Religious Freedom And Burial Rights:

Every Citizen of India has an individual religious autonomy under Article 25 and this right also includes the right to choose burial practice based on one's religious belief. The Meghalaya High Court in the case of Worter kharamlki v. Meghalaya[5] held that the religious freedom under Article 25 includes the right to cremation ground. The freedom of Conscience ensured under this Article can also be interpreted to include the inner freedom to choose rituals and custom of one's faith which can extend to burial practices.

It is pertinent to note the holding of the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India with respect to this matter. In Ashray Athikar Abhiyan v. Union of India[6], it was held by the apex court that the burial practices should be done in accordance with one's religious faith & belief. Also in the recent case of Mohammed Latief Magrey v. Union Teritorry of Jammu & Kashmir[7], the apex court held that the right of the next kin to have their dear one cremated or buried as per the religious obligation and belief that the dead person professed at the time of death is a part and parcel of right to life guaranteed under Article 21. It is well established that upholding dignity and rights of dead is an integral part of Article 21 of the constitution.[8]

In Mohammed Gani v. The Superintendent of Police[9], it was held that the right to bury dead bodies in accordance with one's religious rites and customs is a part of Article 25 of the constitution and hence, it is a fundamental right. In Sethu Raja v. The Chief Secretary [10]in every religion there are rites and ceremonies performed on the death of a member of that religion, and these include transporting the dead body to the cremation place. In our opinion, these rites and ceremonies are an essential part of that religion, and hence cannot be prohibited in a secular State.

Religious Conversion And Its Implication On Burial Rights:

Religious conversion has profound implications on burial rights, as burial practices are deeply intertwined with religious beliefs and cultural customs. When individuals convert to a different faith, they often face challenges in reconciling their new religious identity with established burial traditions.

One significant implication of religious conversion on burial rights is the question of eligibility for burial in communal grounds. These burial sites are often managed by religious denominations or community organizations, and access may be restricted based on religious affiliation. Converts may find themselves excluded from burial grounds associated with their former religion, leading to feelings of alienation and discrimination.

Additionally, religious conversion can disrupt family and community dynamics surrounding burial rituals. Converts may wish to have burial rites performed according to their new religious beliefs, which may differ from the traditions of their family or community. This can create tensions and conflicts within families, as well as challenges in navigating cultural expectations and religious obligations.

This has been a new area of conflict in recent times as we can see many cases on this aspect. The Andhra Pradesh High Court while dealing with such matter in Gottumukala Rattaiah v. State of Andhra Pradesh[11], in para 39 of the Judgment observed that Provision of Burial grounds must be made irrespective of Religion, region, caste, gender, etc., to the deceased person to have a decent burial or cremation in accordance with his/her own religious faith.

The Madras High Court in the recent Judgment of B.Kalaiselvi v. The District collector [12] in para 13 of the judgment held that the right to be cremated or buried in accordance wirh one's religious rituals, rites, practices and beliefs is an essential aspect of Article 25. Also in Para 30 of the judgment the court ordered to construct and maintain a common cremation / burial ground without any discrimination on the basis of caste and community. This same stance was held in the case of S. Amirthavalli v. The District collector [13].

The Advisory guidelines for upholding the dignity and protecting rights of the dead issued by the National Human Rights Commission[14], states that there shall be no discrimination in treating a dead body in any form and dead body should be handled irrespective of Religion, region, caste, gender, etc., and the deceased person has the right to a decent and timely burial/cremation.

Despite such judicial stances and Frameworks why still burial grounds are maintained separately on the basis of religion? To understand that requires the deeper analysis of the role of Religious denominations and the Community organizations managing the burial grounds.

Role Of Religious Denominations & Community Organizations:

Burial in India is often considered a religious matter and the decisions on matters of religion i.e., in this case to allow a person to cremate in the Hindu Burial Ground or bury in Christian cemetery or a Muslim burial ground, are primarily within the domain of a religious institution having a denominational character which is constitutionally protected under Article 26.

The term Religious Denomination has not been explained in the Constitution and has been judicially interpreted first in the case of Shirur Mutt and was further held in SP.Mittal v. Union of India [15] that it is a collection of Individuals classed together under the same name: a religious sect or a body having a common faith and organization and designated by distinctive name. Going by the decision a religious denomination is necessarily a religious organization and that has been entitled to a constitutional protection under Article 26(b) of the constitution to manage their own religious affairs.

Community organizations managing the religious burial grounds in a particular area is essential to preserve and maintain the religious identity and sanctity which ultimately concerns the religious sentiments of a particular community. Any exception would definitely tamper the religious organization and would lead to communal riots.

The rights of religious communities to religious autonomy i.e., the right to exist, perpetuate their belief and carry out their religious practices has been enshrined in the International human rights laws including the UDHR and the ICCPR. Article 18 of the UDHR states the right to religious freedom including the freedom to manifest one's religion is not just an individual right but "in community with others". Also according Article 18 of the ICCPR religious freedom is not just an individual right but also a collective right.

Thus allowing a converted person to the burial ground of his previous religious faith would definitely disrupt the long-standing practices and also the peace & order and the societal fabric. This being a valid stance, there are instances where a person of the same community faces social boycott. [16] At times there are hidden caste based discriminations by the religious organizations but as they have been granted a protection under Article 26, no one can question their authority as we being a secular state, can't interfere in religious matter unless it affects public order, morality and health.

Years ago, in Kesura village of Hazaribag, a converted Christian was denies access in both Hindu and Christian crematorium.[17] The stance of Hindu burial management was that she's now converted and that of the Church was that she belonged to a different village. After 36 hours, the administration had found a state's land to provide her a decent burial.

Another similar instance occurred in Orissa where after conversion a person was denied to be buried in the Hindu ground and even in the Christian burial ground.[18]

The main reason that we could figure out on why such organization's decision are not questioned is that their community recognition as a religious entity by the people belonging to that particular community and their contribution to the preservation of religious customs and tradition within their own community.

Combating Controversies Post-Conversion:

The access to communal burial grounds and potential discrimination faced by converts in accessing these spaces are huge. Article 15 of constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of Religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth in denying access to public crematorium.[19]And such express denial to access crematorium is a form of untouchability as held in P.Rathinam v. State of Tamilnadu[20].

Legally, robust enforcement of constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and equality is essential, ensuring that converts have equal access to burial rights and protection from discrimination. Socially, fostering dialogue and understanding between religious communities can help mitigate tensions and promote respect for individual beliefs.

Culturally, initiatives aimed at raising awareness and promoting diversity can challenge stereotypes and prejudices, fostering greater acceptance and inclusion of converts in burial practices. Additionally, community-based mediation and conflict resolution mechanisms can provide avenues for resolving disputes and promoting reconciliation. By addressing these various aspects, society can work towards creating an environment where burial rights post-conversion are respected and upheld, fostering greater harmony and cohesion within diverse communities.

In conclusion, the legal implications of religious conversion on burial rights are complex and multifaceted, encompassing issues of access, tradition, and identity. While constitutional protections provide a foundation for safeguarding religious freedom and equality, challenges persist in translating these principles into practice. Addressing controversies post-conversion requires a concerted effort from legal, social, and cultural stakeholders to promote understanding, respect, and inclusivity.

By upholding the rights of individuals undergoing religious conversion and fostering dialogue between religious communities, society can strive towards a more equitable and harmonious approach to burial rights, ensuring that all individuals are able to honour their religious beliefs and cultural traditions with dignity and respect.

Websites referred:
  • Rights of the Dead: Do they have any in India? (last visited on Feb 3, 2024) at India.
  • Legal Rights and Obligations to a Corpse - NDLS scholarship (last visited on Feb 3, 2024) at India.
  • Judgements of Madras High Court, (last visited on Feb 3, 2024) at India.
  1. Commissioner Hindu religious endowments, Madras v Lakshmindra Thirtha Swamiar of Shri Shirur Mutt, AIR 1954 SC 282
  2. SR Bommai v UOI AIR 1994 SC 1918
  3. Vasudev v. Vamanji ILR 1881 Bom 80
  4. A.S. Narayana Deeshitulu v state of Andhra Pradesh AIR 1996 SC 1765
  5. Worter kharamlki v. Meghalaya AIR 2010 Gau 51
  6. Ashray Athikar Abhiyan v Union of India
  7. Mohammed Latief Magrey v. Union Teritorry of Jammu & Kashmir, 2022 SCC J&K
  8. Paramanand Khatara v. Union of India, AIR 1995 3 SCC 248
  9. Mohammed Gani v Superindent of Police, AIR 2005 Mad 359
  10. Sethu Raja v. The chief Secretary, W.P.(MD)No.3888 of 2007
  11. Gottumukala Rattaiah v. State of Andhra Pradesh, 2021 SCC AP 3299
  12. B.Kalaiselvi v. The District collector, WP no.9229/2021
  13. S. Amirthavalli v. The District collector, WP no 22394/2021
  14. NHRC-Dead.pdf Last Visited: Feb 3,2024
  15. SP.Mittal v. Union of India AIR 1983 SC 1
  16. Chhattisgarh Adivasi Christians Struggle: Conversion Bogey Narayanpur Last Visited Feb 3 2024
  17. Hindus, Christians refuse converted woman burial Last visited Feb 3 2024
  18. No cremation land for Odisha man who converted to Christianity five years ago Last visited Feb 3 2024
  19. B.Kalaiselvi v. The District collector, WP no.9229/2021
  20. P.Rathinam v. State of Tamilnadu, AIR 2009 (2) CTC 405

Written By: R. Harinibai, B.A. LL.B., (Hons.)-Sastra Deemed University, Tamil Nadu

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