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‘Anti-Conversion’ Laws Linked To Higher Persecution

Himachal Pradesh state approves the latest so-called ‘Freedom of Religion’ law.

2/28/07 India (Compass Direct News) – With the governor of Himachal Pradesh approving an “anti-conversion” bill last week, India now has seven states with legislation banning unregistered or unethical religious conversions – to the glee of Hindu extremists who arbitrarily invoke them to quash Christian growth.

On February 20, Governor Vishnu Sadashiv Kokje gave his assent to the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill 2006, which was passed in the state assembly by the Congress Party last December 30.

The seven Indian states with anti-conversion legislations, known as Freedom of Religion Acts, are Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.

Hindu extremists commonly use anti-conversion legislation to falsely accuse Christians of converting people through force or allurement; thus they justify attacks on Christians or deflect prosecution away from themselves by pressing charges of “forcible conversion” without any evidence.

While anti-conversion laws were enforced in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (before they were divided into two separate states) in 1967 and in Orissa in 1968, the legislation in Rajasthan state, which passed in the state assembly in April 2006, is still awaiting governor’s assent.

Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat also have passed such laws in 1978 and 2003 respectively, with their governors’ approval, but they have not been implemented as rules have yet to be framed.

According to procedures laid down in the India Constitution, a bill cannot become a law until the state governor signs it. After governor’s assent, a state government can frame rules and implement the law.

Tool of Hindu Nationalism

Christians and political analysts in India link the enactment of anti-conversion laws to the Hindu nationalistic agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of numerous Hindu extremist groups.

The BJP uses anti-conversion law as a tool to institutionalize the ideology of Hindu nationalism, known as Hindutva, which envisions a “Hindu nation” where the religious minorities are allowed to live but in subordination to the majority community.

Christianity, according to Hindutva, is a “Western religion” brought to India mainly under the British colonial rule. The BJP also claims that missionaries are part of an international conspiracy, mainly stemming from the United States , to convert and overtake India .

The Hindu extremist party accuses Western missionaries of using material bribes or force to convert poor and illiterate people in India .

In less than one year, the BJP, which was ruling at the federal level till April 2004 and is still in power in some states, has enacted an anti-conversion law in Rajasthan and made the existing laws more stringent in Madhya Pradesh (July 25), Chhattisgarh (August 3) and Gujarat (September 19). Governors in those states, however, have not given their assent to any of these bills.

Recently the BJP said it would bring an anti-conversion law to the northern state of Uttarakhand, formerly known as Uttaranchal, if it is voted to power in the assembly elections that took place on February 21; results from the polls are still awaited. (See Compass Direct News, “ India News Briefs,” February 20.)

Himachal Pradesh is the first Congress Party-ruled state in recent years to enact an anti-conversion law. The Congress Party, which rules the federal government through the United Progressive Alliance, maintains that it is “secular” – a term that, in common usage in India , means equal treatment of all religious communities.

Dr. Joseph D’Souza, president of the All India Christian Council, said the Himachal Pradesh law betrays the promises of the Congress Party to address the needs of minority faiths across India .

“This law severely undercuts the fundamental right to freedom of religion, particularly for exploited Dalits and tribals,” D’Souza said. “The assent of the governor amounts to an endorsement of the discrimination and persecution against religious minorities in Himachal Pradesh state.”

Creating Persecution

Christians assert that the incidence of persecution is higher in states where anti-conversion laws are in force.

Most recently, on February 8 extremists allegedly belonging to the RSS beat an evangelist of the Friends Missionary Prayer Band, accused him of conversions and forced him to the police station in Devasari village in Chhattisgarh’s Sarguja district. The Kusmi police station filed a complaint against him under the state anti-conversion law, and the court remanded him to custody – while no complaint was filed against the extremists for attacking him. (See Compass Direct News, “ India News Briefs,” February 9.)

In Himachal Pradesh state, where the law is yet to be implemented, two anti-Christian incidents were reported soon after the passing of the bill.

A large number of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) extremists on January 21 gathered outside the house of Pastor Timuhias Behal in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district, demanded that he close down his Peniel Prarthana Bhawan orphanage and move out of the area. On January 18, extremists from the same group pressured two residents of the Last Resort drug-rehabilitation center in Khokhan village to file false complaints against a pastor and three Christian workers. (See Compass Direct News, “ India News Briefs” February 2.)

Last year, two members of the National Commission for Minorities, Harcharan Singh Josh and Lama Chosphel Zotpa, acknowledged that Hindu extremists frequently invoke the anti-conversion law in the BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh as a means of inciting mobs against Christians or of having them arrested without evidence. They reported this finding after a visit to the state June 13-18.

Dubious Intentions

According to Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, “Freedom of Religion” laws are misnamed.

“Their intention is just the reverse,” he said. “They deny the people the freedom of faith.”

These laws encourage extremist groups such as the RSS and VHP to target Christians and their educational institutions, he said, adding that in Madhya Pradesh it has become “impossible” for Christian workers to even visit rural areas.

Christians complain that the anti-conversion laws define “force,” “fraud” and “inducement” vaguely, which can paralyze Christian social and evangelistic service by exposing Christian workers to false charges.

For instance, Section 2(b) of the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act terms “divine displeasure” – a key component of the gospel message – as “force.” Section 2(d) labels an “inducement” the offer of “any gift or benefit” – thus criminalizing Christ’s command to feed, clothe and give drink to the needy. Section 2(b) vaguely defines as fraud “misrepresentation or any other fraudulent contrivance.”

Section 4(1) of the Act requires any person wishing to convert to another religion to give a prior notice of at least 30 days to district authorities; failure to do so can result in a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$23). Yet, “no notice shall be required if a person reverts back to his own religion” – in a society that largely assumes that to be born in India is to be born Hindu.

Section 3 states that a person who is converted by any unfair means shall not be considered converted. According to Section 5, an offense under Section 3 – which includes conversion “by the use of force or by inducement or by any other fraudulent means” – is punishable with imprisonment up to two years and/or a fine up to 25,000 rupees (US$570).

In case of conversion of a minor, woman, Dalit or tribal (aboriginal) person, the imprisonment can extend to three years and the fine up to 50,000 rupees (US$1,140).

Election Issue

Before elections, the BJP has raised the issue of Christian growth and consequent need to ban “forced” conversions in order to divide voters along religious lines.

On February 10, The Indian Express daily quoted Himachal Pradesh state BJP chief Jairam Thakur as saying that, had the Congress Party government not enacted the anti-conversion law, the issue could have become his party’s “major poll plank” in assembly elections in 2008.

Another such example can be seen in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagamin government in Tamil Nadu state, which enacted an anti-conversion law in October 2002 to woo the BJP as an ally.

The law was repealed in May 2004, a month after the BJP was defeated in national elections.