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Second Indian State to Strengthen Anti-Conversion Law

by Vishal Arora

NEW DELHI , August 15 (Compass) — Attempts to strengthen the state anti-conversion law in Chattisgarh state, India , have been held up due to “technical problems,” according to a government official.

“The Chattisgarh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam (Freedom of Religion Act) is already in force, but we want to make some amendments in it to make it more effective,” Brij Mohan Agarwal, the state law minister and former home minister, told Compass.

Under the proposed amendments, any person wishing to convert — and any religious leader involved in the conversion — must contact district officials 30 days in advance. Officials must approve the conversion before it takes place.

If the amendments are accepted, anyone found guilty of attempting to convert someone forcefully or fraudulently may be imprisoned for up to four years and fined up to 100,000 rupees ($2,290).

Under existing provisions, an offender may be imprisoned for up to two years and fined a maximum of 10,000 rupees ($229).

While Agarwal said the proposed changes were on hold due to “technical problems,” Kaviraj Lal, a local member of the Christian Legal Association of India (CLAI), said the opposition Congress Party had objected to the changes.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), still ruling in Chattisgarh, first suggested the amendments in 2003. Chattisgarh Gov. Lt. Gen. K. M. Seth told the state assembly in December of that year that the anti-conversion law would be “stricter” under BJP rule.

BJP ministers felt the existing law was not rigorously enforced and contained too many loopholes.

As politicians clash over the bill, police officers have used other legal means to harass Christians.

According to Lal of CLAI, “In at least two recent incidents, police have used Section 151(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) to arrest Christian workers without any arrest warrant or legal formalities.”

Section 151(1) of the CrPC states, “A police officer knowing of a design to commit any cognizable offence may arrest, without orders from the Magistrate and without a warrant, the person so designing, if it appears to such officer that the commission of the offence cannot be otherwise prevented.”

On July 10, police detained 35 Christians, mostly women and children, belonging to the Gosner Evangelical Lutheran Church (GELC), in the town of Ambikapur in Chattisgarh’s Sarguja district, on suspicion of attempted conversion.

“We were taken to the police station at about 11 p.m. after we prayed in the house of Kailash Ram,” Vijay Nikunj, a 35-year old member of the GELC and one of the accused, told Compass.

Ram had hosted a small thanksgiving dinner for the Christians who had prayed for his healing from an illness several days earlier.

“While the thanksgiving prayer was on, eight young men who identified themselves as part of the Judeo Sena (followers of Dileep Singh Judeo, a local leader of the BJP) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) broke in and started manhandling us,” Nikunj explained. “They also phoned the police station alleging that we had come to the village for conversions. The police came immediately and took us to the police station.”

The police released the Christians on July 11 but registered a First Information Report against Nikunj and his sister, Salen Nikunj, who had both prayed for Ram. A court case is pending.

Earlier, police arrested four Christians in a village in Chattisgarh’s Durg district, after local villagers accused them of attempted conversion. (See Compass Direct, “ Hindu Extremists Attack Church in Chattisgarh, India ,” June 9.)

India ’s federal government created Chattisgarh state in November 2000, splitting it from Madhya Pradesh. Chattisgarh retained the Freedom of Religion Act adopted by Madhya Pradesh in 1968.