A sixth Indian state is debating the introduction of an “anti-conversion law”.
Maharashtra would follow Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in implementing a Freedom of Religion Act, which seems harmless in name, but in practice discourages evangelism, as Vishal Arora reports in the video below.
Learn more: India’s Christians are under attack
The number of violent attacks on Christians and churches in India increased over the summer months and 16 of the 18 incidents recorded by World Watch Monitor between July and early September took place in states where “anti-conversion laws” are in place.
TRANSCRIPT OF VIDEO ABOVE
VA: A new bill which seeks to regulate religious conversions has been introduced in the western state of Maharashtra, which is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and Christians are worried.
Pramod Singh, President, Christian Legal Association of India: It is going to affect Christians in particular because propagation is something which is very intrinsic in the [Christian] faith.
VA: Termed as the Freedom of Religion Act, but widely known as the anti-conversion law, this legislation is already in force in five states. It effectively seeks to discourage evangelism. A mere complaint under this law is enough for Hindu nationalists to get pastors and Christian workers arrested.
Singh: The Christians in particular, we have seen from past experiences, even where there has been no such law, the Christians, the pastors, the evangelists have been under pressure and under threat, and they have been subjected to oppression.
VA: anti-conversion law says that no-one can convert from one religion to another using force, allurement or fraudulent means. Due to these weak terms, any social work could be seen as allurement, any mention of ‘hell’ as force. The legislation also requires people to either inform authorities about their conversions or seek permission before they can convert. Therefore it is feared that Christians could become a soft target.
Singh: This law will give the legitimacy [to persecute Christians] in the hands of the state and the non-state actors also, who would, or may be, holding the majority [intolerant] opinion.
VA: This law has existed in some states since the 1960s, and Hindu nationalists routinely lodge police complaints against pastors and Christian workers, alleging that they are converting Hindus by using allurement or force. However, there has not been any known conviction under it, so why would a government like to bring in such a law?
Singh: Though it’s a private bill … it has the tacit support of the government. These are the forces which want the society to be polarized. It basically comes … to control people, to control their destinies, to control their choice, subjugate them, to interfere in their very personal decisions.
VA: One of the undeclared objectives of the anti-conversion law is to resist mass conversion of Dalits, who were earlier recognized as “untouchables”. Dalits, also known as Scheduled Castes, have remained at the bottom of a rigid social hierarchy in India for centuries. About 70 per cent of India’s Christians are from Dalit backgrounds.
Franklin Caesar, Activist for Dalit Christians: [Under] the anti-conversion law, it is easy to convert Dalit Christians to Hinduism, Christians to Hinduism, whereas converting people from Hinduism to Christianity is very tough.
VA: India’s Constitution provides for special protections and reservations in educational institutions and jobs for all Dalits, provided they have not converted away from Hinduism. A Presidential Order passed in 1950, and subsequent amendments, ruled that Dalits who convert to Christianity or Islam will not qualify for the benefits.
Singh: To my mind, this 1950 Presidential Order was the first attack on religious freedom [in independent India].
VA: It is believed that the Presidential Order, just like the anti-conversion law, seeks to discourage conversion of Dalits to Christianity. Dalit Christians went to the Supreme Court in 2004 to challenge the discriminatory order. The court asked some statutory bodies to look into the issue and all of them spoke in favour of revoking the 1950 Order, but the government is yet to file its response.
Singh: Though this Order has been challenged in the Supreme Court, it is [currently pending] before the Supreme Court, the government strangely has been shying away from filing an affidavit, and has been protracting this litigation beyond any … [reasonable] limit for the last nine years, whether it was the United Progressive Alliance [UPA] government [led by the left-of-center Congress Party] and now the [incumbent] National Democratic Alliance [NDA] government [led by the Right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP]. They have failed to file their affidavit and come before the court and say that this is the rationale why reservations [in jobs and educational institutions] should not be extended to Dalit Christians or Dalit Muslims.
VA: Even as the government continues to delay giving its reply to the highest court, a court in the southern state of Kerala, which has a sizeable Christian population, recently ruled that if Dalit Christians return to Hinduism, they would be eligible for the protections. Christians fear this will promote a campaign started by Hindu nationalist forces to convert Christians back to Hinduism. Justice remains a distant dream for them.
Singh: This judgment will certainly promote reconversions, because there has been a denial, a continuous denial, of the rights of Christians and Muslims when they converted to Christianity.