India’s Fading Promise of Religious Freedom: Part 1
By ICC’s India Correspondent
10/02/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Religious freedom is a fundamental right promised to all Indians by their founding fathers. This promise is enshrined in India’s constitution. Article 25 gives Indians the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate the religion of their choice.
Religious freedom has been the law of the land for seven decades.
However, a worrying trend of increasing religious intolerance and religiously motivated violence have many concerned India is tilting away from its promise of religious freedom. Fueling much of the violence is an ideology of Hindu nationalism that stands in direct contrast to India’s democratic and secular history.
One way India’s Christians have seen their religious freedom rights curtailed has been the proliferation and abuse of anti-conversion laws. Officially called Freedom of Religion Acts, anti-conversion laws have been enacted in eight of India’s 29 states.
According to these laws, religious conversions are regulated by the state. Individuals seeking to change their religion must have their conversion approved by the state government after an investigation and waiting period. Fraudulent conversions, often labeled forced conversions, are criminalized.
Hindu nationalists frequently use the specter of fraudulent mass conversions to Christianity to justify anti-conversion laws. According to these nationalists, Christians are accused of converting poor Hindus to Christianity in mass by fraudulent means.
Due to growing religious intolerance and the normalization of religiously motivated violence, many radical Hindu nationalists view all religious conversions to non-Hindu faiths as fraudulent. In an increasing number of cases, radical Hindu nationalists equate all non-Hindu religious activity with forced or fraudulent conversions.
In May 2018, eight Christians, including six men and two women, were arrested at a train station in Madhya Pradesh. They were accused of kidnapping and attempting to forcefully convert the 60 children they accompanied to a summer Bible camp. All of the children came from Christian families. Also, their parents gave consent for their children to travel to and attend the camp.
Despite these facts, the eight Christians were charged with attempted forced conversions under Madhya Pradesh’s Freedom of Religion Act 1968.
For the next two and a half years, the eight Christians had to fight a prolonged legal battle to prove their innocence. On February 18, 2020, the eight Christians were finally acquitted of all charges.
“It was a life-threatening situation for me and my family during this prolonged trial,” Lallu Babor, one of the eight Christians, recently told International Christian Concern (ICC). “Apart from the struggles I went through in jail for three months, my wife and two kids had no hope of survival without me around.”
“All I know is that we did survive,” Babor continued. “The false charges were proven to be false. We thank God for that. The people who beat us and framed these false charges against us knew eventually the charges would be proven false.”
In 2017, Jharkhand, a state located in India’s northeast, enacted an anti-conversion law soon after the state government was taken over by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Within a year, ICC documented the arrest of at least 63 Christians on false, forced conversion charges in Jharkhand alone.
Unfortunately, false accusations of forced conversions continue to be reported against Christians in Jharkhand. On September 23, the Christian community of an entire village was arrested by police after radical Hindu nationalists falsely accused them of engaging in forced conversions.
“There is still tension in Gagari village,” Pastor Majendra Nayak told ICC. “The anti-conversion law is the easiest weapon that Hindu radicals use against us. It is the most dangerous.”
“Even when the Christians gather and pray as a group, it is portrayed as a conversion ceremony by radicals,” Pastor Nayak said. “The police immediately accept the mere accusation as evidence and make arrests.”
The Christians of Gagari village were eventually released after police could not gather adequate evidence to support the charges.
Currently, anti-conversion laws have been enacted in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand. BJP-led governments in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Karnataka have all publicly called for anti-conversion laws to be enacted, explicitly citing the issue of fraudulent mass conversions to Christianity as a justification.
However, India’s population data does not support this conspiracy of mass conversions to Christianity. In 1951, the first census after independence, Christians made up 2.3% of India’s population. According to the 2011 census, the most recent census data available, Christians still make up 2.3% of the population.
To date, no individual has ever been convicted of the crime of forced conversion. This is despite the fact that some anti-conversion laws have been on the books since the late 1960s. However, the proliferation of anti-conversion laws and the growing threat of religiously motivated violence has left India’s Christians to wonders whether the constitution’s promise of religious freedom is fading.