Anti-conversion laws have drawn criticism from India's Christians (WWM)
Anti-conversion laws have drawn criticism from India’s Christians (World Watch Monitor)

The north-east Indian state of Jharkhand has cleared the draft of an “anti-conversion bill” that could mean four-year prison sentences and 100,000 rupee fines (US$1,500) for those found to have forced another person to change religions, reports The New Indian Express.

If what has been dubbed the “Religious Freedom Bill 2017” is passed, Jharkhand will become the latest state to have an “anti-conversion law”, alongside Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.

The bill, due to be introduced at the next session of Assembly, starting 8 August, arose out of concerns in the BJP-led state about a significant rise in the Christian and Muslim populations. India’s most recent census in 2011 showed that Christians (29.7%) and Muslims (28.4%) had a higher rate of growth than Hindus (21%) since Jharkhand’s last census in 2001.

Speaking to Asia News, Telesphore Toppo, Archbishop of Ranchi, said: “This law is not to prohibit conversions, but it is against forced conversions. Forced conversions do not exist. We are free people with a free will and a free conscience and intelligence. No-one can force another to convert.”

The “freedom of religion” laws of other states have been criticised by the Evangelical Fellowship of India’s Religious Liberty Commission. In its report, Hate and targeted violence against Christians in India, the Commission highlighted a steep rise in attacks on Christians in 2016 compared to the previous two years. Two of the states with “anti-conversion laws” – Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – had the second and third highest number of attacks, respectively. The report said that, although the laws are there to prevent religious conversions made by “force, fraud or allurement”, they obstruct conversions generally, and Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians, leading to spurious arrests and incarcerations.

The state of Tamil Nadu passed an “anti-conversion law” in 2002 but it was repealed in 2004 after a defeat of the BJP-led coalition.

Meanwhile the Indian state of Maharashtra has criminalised social exclusion based on religion, caste or race, reports UCA News, prompting a call for other states to follow suit.

The Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act 2016 will punish violators with years in jail and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees (about US$1,500).

The new law is good news for the state’s Dalits, who “are bound by the village-level caste system, without access to legal mechanisms to solve conflicts”, according to Father Z. Devasagayaraj, of the Indian bishops’ office.

The term “social boycott” includes preventing people from participating in religious festivals, using common institutions like schools and hospitals, or being eligible for certain jobs.

Dalit converts to Christianity frequently face social boycotts by Hindu groups hoping to make India a Hindu nation. Advocates of Dalit and minority rights, such as Father Devasagayaraj, consider the legislation “historic” and say it has the potential to ensure social equality for the country’s discriminated groups.