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Christians Forced to ‘Reconvert’ in Himachal Pradesh, Despite New Anti-Conversion Law

3/4/08 New Delhi (International Christian Concern) – Reports of Christians being forced to convert back to Hinduism from the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, where an “anti-conversion” law was recently passed that prohibits forcible conversion. Nevertheless, the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came into power two months ago, does not appear to see any problem with forcible “reconversions” of Christians to Hinduism.

At least 60 Christian families were reportedly “reconverted” by organizations linked to the BJP in the last week alone, which, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), is the tip of the iceberg.

The EFI said in a statement that one Pastor Ram Lal and his wife were reconverted in a ceremony organized by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) on February 27 in the Rampur area of Shimla district.

The extremists first tried to induce Pastor Lal by offering Rs.15,000 ($400) a year in exchange for preaching Hinduism, instead of Christianity. But after he refused to do so, they threatened to kill him or put him behind bars by lodging a false complaint. Under duress, he finally underwent a ritual to convert to Hinduism.

“It is better for me to die than to leave Jesus. But I was under so much pressure,” the release quoted Pastor Lal as saying to the Christian Legal Association (CLA).

Pastor Lal’s “reconversion” came just days after over 60 families were “reconverted” to Hinduism at a ceremony in the Satyanarayan Temple in Rampur, and one day before RSS and VHP extremists approached other Christians, asking them to install idols of Hindu gods in their homes. But, these families did not heed their demands, and as a result the extremists “reconverted” them forcibly, said the release.

The atmosphere in Rampur area was “very tense” at press time.

From Deception to Force

Extremist groups started a reconversion drive in Himachal Pradesh about a year ago. However, what began as a deceptive movement last February under rule of the Congress party has now turned overtly forceful with the BJP’s coming to power late last December.

In March 2007, a fact-finding team of the All India Christian Council (AICC) recorded testimonies of Dalit families who said they were made to sign papers not knowing that the papers were documents requesting “reconversion” to Hinduism in Sirmaur district on March 21, 2007, according to a report in Hindi language daily Punjab Kesari.

Prior to the reconversion drive, the extremists launched a virulent anti-Christian campaign to suggest that missionaries were alluring poor Hindus to Christianity. In 2005, the local edition of a Hindi language daily, Dainik Jagran, carried a series of articles highlighting allegations made by extremists against Christians, as highlighted in ICC’s press release on May 15, 2007 (Deceitful Propaganda Led to Himachal Pradesh Anti-Conversion Law).

Law that Bans Forced Conversion Doesn’t Prohibit Forced Reconversion?

Himachal Pradesh has a special law banning conversion by the use of “force, inducement or fraudulent means.” But the law excludes “reconversions” implicitly by stating that a conversion by unfair means shall not be recognized as such. Extremist groups, who are linked to the governing party, assert that Christian organizations give financial benefits for conversions, and thus conversions to Christianity do not count as true conversions.

The anti-conversion law was passed by the Congress party, which claims to respect religious freedom. However, in the face of the December 2007 elections which Congress was afraid of losing to the radical BJP, the party switched positions on the issue of conversion to try to win back votes. The BJP still defeated the Congress.

Despite the hypocrisy of the “anti-conversion” laws, there are sections in the Indian Penal Code concerning hurting religious feelings and creating animosity among religious denominations that could be applied against the forced reconversions. However, the police, under pressure from the government, hesitate to file cases against extremist groups linked to the ruling party.

“Complaints are filed only against Christian preachers, and that without evidence of conversion by unfair means, but no action is taken against the Hindu extremists who openly force Christians to convert. What would you call it, if not hypocrisy?” asked Tehmina Arora, general secretary of the CLA.

There are less than 8,000 Christians in Himachal Pradesh, according to the Government of India’s figures.