By Lisa Navarrette, ICC Fellow
While freedom of religion is integral to our American pluralist life, many countries experience religious oppression through anti-conversion laws. These laws intend to elevate the state-endorsed religion; codified laws forbid individuals from changing from the majority religion to a minority one, particularly Christianity and Islam.
India, Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan have anti-conversion laws. Recently, there has been growing concern about officials enacting new, more restrictive, and discriminatory laws in India.
India is the birthplace of many world religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. In 1950, the nation adopted a Western-style secular democracy. The country is home to thousands of ethnic groups and nearly two dozen official languages. Out of this diversity, one would expect ethnic and religious tolerance to reign.
Recently, Hindu nationalism has become a growing force politically. Hindu nationalists subscribe to the Hindutva, or ideology that only Hindus are true Indians and that all other religions, especially Christians and Muslims, are foreigners who must be expelled.
India’s People’s Party (BJP) won the national election in 2014. Known Hindu nationalists, including Prime Minister Modi, lead the party. At a conference in 2021, Hindu Mahasabha political party leader Pooja Shakun Pandey and other Hindu leaders made hate-filled remarks about Muslims. “If 100 of us [Hindus] become soldiers and are prepared to kill two million [Muslims], then we will win… protect India and make it a Hindu nation,” he said.
India’s constitution protects religious freedom citing that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice, and propagate religion.” Despite codified law at the national level, state legislatures can and have passed anti-conversion laws.
As the BJP continues to win local and state elections, more states are passing anti-conversion laws. Currently, 13 Indian states have anti-conversion laws. Officials say the purpose of the laws is to prohibit force, fraud, or inducement by minority religions on low-caste Hindus.
Interfaith marriages are also illegal. For instance, if a Hindu spouse converts to Christianity to marry, both spouses break the anti-conversion laws. This scenario fits the definition of “conversion by force” under the law. Whether coercive or not, sentences for any conversion can carry a sentence of up to ten years imprisonment, fines, and denial of government benefits for those who convert.
Christians in India have been persecuted for decades. Yet, since 2021 and the enactment of anti-conversion laws, persecution against Christians has significantly increased. Violence remains at an extreme level. The New York Times also recently reported the situation for Christians is becoming increasingly hostile. Coordinated attacks occur at both the individual level and the institutional level. Christian organizations are subject to legal complaints against them by lawyers and clerks.
Despite the claims that the anti-conversion laws are for the protection of citizens, they continue to fuel religious persecution. Many in the international community, including the U.S. Department of State and the United Nations, have called the laws religiously motivated repression and violence. National organizations have petitioned the Supreme Court of India to create oversight committees to investigate the growing violence against Christians and Muslims.
The organizations contend that the local governments cannot be trusted and often encourage organized, coordinated attacks on religious minorities. They are asking the Supreme Court to oversee criminal investigations of local police and government. In October, a panel of former Supreme Court justices, former judges from high courts, and a former national government official reviewed hundreds of cases. They found that in 752 of the 758 cases – 99% of cases – the police could have lessened or prevented violence. They also found many discrepancies in police reporting of the incidents. The lack of celerity, severity, and certainty of Hindu extremists’ punishment has allowed violence to persist without punishment.
Though individual cases are being heard before the Supreme Court about police complicity during the violence, unauthorized home demolitions of Muslims, and banning hijabs at schools, none have dealt directly with the legality of anti-conversion laws themselves and their impact on individual human rights.
The national government has continued to assert that the laws are non-discriminatory and for protection from radical religious groups. Hindu nationalist organizations, such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad, have petitioned the national government to outlaw all interfaith marriages. Joint General Secretary Surendra Jain led the effort for strict national laws to prevent “illegal conversions.” He cited marriage conversion as a cause for social discontent and a threat to national security.
With Hindu nationalists occupying the highest leadership positions at the national level, religious persecution against Christians and Muslims will likely continue indefinitely. Anti-conversion laws at the national level would bring catastrophic persecution of all faiths other than Hinduism.
The Indian government must feel the crushing weight of the international community to expose the violence and demand reforms.
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