Anti-conversion legislation in India

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Anti-conversion legislation in India refers to the laws enacted by several Indian states which prohibit Hindus from converting to Christianity. Christianity is the third largest religion in India with Hinduism being the largest and Islam being the second largest religion.[1] More than 2% of the population in the country are Christians.[2] Christianity is the majority religion in the states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya where Christians constitute 90.02%, 87% and 70.3% of the states' populations respectively.

Hindu fundamentalists claim Christian missionaries forcefully convert Hindus to Christianity.[3] This belief is described as false propaganda campaign orchestrated by Hindu nationalist organizations in India.[2] The stated purpose of the anti-conversion laws are to prohibit religious conversions allegedly made by "force", "fraud" or "allurement". This view is rejected by Christians and rights groups.[3] In fact, there are incidents where churches are torched and Christian schools are ransacked by Hindu extremists.[2] Christians stated that the laws are enacted actually for the purpose of obstructing conversion generally[3] and to hold onto a Hindu cultural hegemony.[2] There is also allegation that Hindu nationalists harass Christian workers by imprisoning them with false accusations.[3] Hindu extremist organizations in the country want India to become a theocratic Hindu state.[2] The anti-conversion laws favour Hinduism over other religions.[4]

The U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus briefing on anti-conversion laws in India by Angela C. Wu of the Washington, D.C.-based The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty stated:[5]

The federal government in India has embraced religious pluralism, and indeed Article 25 of the Indian Constitution guarantees everyone the right and the freedom to preach, practice and propagate her religion. ... Yet many state governments have chosen to exploit religious tensions by enforcing or strengthening anti-conversion laws Some of these laws have long been on the books, but the recent enforcement and even strengthening of these laws, particularly by the Hindu nationalist BJP, is alarming. These laws forbid "forcible conversions" — which police and judges have interpreted to mean anything from charity by religious groups to claiming that God would be happier if someone converted to a new religion.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a Hindu nationalist political party in India, passed an anti-conversion law in the state of Gujarat in 2003. Christian community in the state feared that Hindu extremists will misuse this law by making false accusations against Christian missionaries. A report in an Indian newspaper described the law "From now on, anyone wishing to convert will have to tell the government why they were doing it and for how long they had been following the religion which they were renouncing, failing which, they will be declared offenders and prosecuted under criminal laws". Hindu nationalist organizations prosecuted Muslims and Christians and killed more than 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Due to this law, it becomes mandatory for the clergy who want to convert a person from one religion to another to obtain permission of the district magistrate. It also becomes mandatory for the clergy to provide personal information of the person whom (s)he wants to convert including her/his marital status, occupation and income.[3] The Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) expressed concern over this law in which "force", "fraudulent means" and "allurement" are very loosely defined.[6] Alexa Papadouris, Advocacy Director of the Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said,[6]

This law is extremely intrusive and entirely at odds with India’s avowed respect for human rights, including the right to freedom of religion. It allows for substantial interference into the private process of an individual’s conversion by a state government known for its extremist Hindu nationalist credentials. The requirement to explain the reasons for conversion to potential hostile officials is a significant block to religious freedom, and the authority given to District Magistrates to deny permission for a conversion ‘ceremony’ is completely unacceptable. It is also a nonsense to demand the ‘time and date’ of a person’s conversion, which is a matter of their private conscience. We call upon the government of Gujarat to immediately repeal this law, and we call upon the international community to condemn what is India’s worst anti-conversion law yet.

Within May 2008, five states in India enacted anti-conversion laws. These are:[3]

Apart from these five states, there are also plans to implement anti-conversion laws in two more states: Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.[3] Throughout the country, violent anti-Christian and anti-conversion campaigns by Hindu extremists continue. Joseph Augustine Charanakunnel, Archbishop of Raipur, the capital of the Indian state Chattisgarh, said "Hindu fundamentalists and local media accuse missionaries of forcing people to convert to Christianity. They carry out cheap anti-conversion propaganda, staging re-conversion ceremonies in which people are 'return' to Hinduism from Christianity. ... Hindu fundamentalists pick on Tribals because they are an easy target. For this reason, the Church has the duty of protecting these helpless people".[7]

Rev. Dr. Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, said "There is absolutely no truth in the allegation that Christians use unfair means to convert the poor and Dalits to Christianity". He added, "These [anti-conversion] laws have a negative social impact on Christians, as people try to ostracize the Christian community whose only purpose to them seems to be to convert, thereby belittling all the social work the community does for the masses. Christian workers are prevented from reaching out to the needy, who too will continue to suffer".[3]

The International Religious Freedom Report 2007 by the U.S. Department of State expressed concern over the wave of anti-conversion laws enacted in several Indian states saying:[8]

Despite the National Government's rejection of "Hindutva," the ideology that espouses the inculcation of Hindu religious and cultural norms above other religious norms, it continued to influence some government policies and actions at the state and local levels. ... The Government of Himachal Pradesh enacted a state-level "anti-conversion" law, which, similar to other laws of its kind, restricts and regulates religious proselytism. The law prohibits an individual from using "force, inducement, or fraudulent means" when contributing, in speech or conduct, to another individual's religious conversion. The Governments of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat amended their existing laws. The Governor of Rajasthan, later elevated to the Presidency, refused to sign her State's anti-conversion law, effectively nullifying it. Although these laws do not explicitly ban conversions, many Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) argue that in practice, "anti-conversion" laws, both by their design and implementation, infringe upon the individual's right to convert, favor Hinduism over minority religions, and represent a significant challenge to Indian secularism.

The report documented many cases of abuse:[8]

The opposition party BJP, the RSS, and other affiliated organizations (collectively known as the Sangh Parivar) claimed to respect and tolerate other religious groups. However, the RSS opposed conversions from Hinduism and expressed the view that all citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation, should adhere to Hindu cultural values. ... The BJP continued to advocate for contentious measures such as the passage of "anti-conversion" legislation in all states in the country, the construction of a Hindu temple in the Ayodhya site, and the enactment of a uniform civil code. ... Faith-based NGOs and the media indicated that authorities arrested 4 people in Andhra Pradesh, 14 in Chhattisgarh, 28 in Madhya Pradesh, 2 in Orissa, and 1 in Uttar Pradesh during the previous reporting period. Many of these cases involved societal attacks on Christians or their property, and in some cases, police brutality was reported. In one instance, the attacked were reportedly arrested instead.

The Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported that Indian Christians faced a wave of harassment by Hindu fundamentalists after the anti-conversion law was passed in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. CSW Advocacy Director Tina Lambert said,[9]

Hindu extremist groups already seem to have been bolstered by the passage of this law, encouraged by the state-sponsored religious freedom restrictions which are becoming ever more common across India.

This is a very troubling trend, and we urge the international community to make urgent representations to the Indian government about the proliferation of anti-conversion legislation.

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