Many, including I, think it is a smokescreen, a red herring, to divert attention while the Sangh Parivar and the BJP Government in Jharkhand, who lost face when they failed to break the tribal solidarity on issues of land, try to divide India’s oldest inhabitants on grounds of religion. The signs have been long a-coming. This Bill is the final one.
The Jesuits of India in a recent “Statement” succinctly described the political backdrop: “ Powerful corporate and communal lobbies, for partisan and vested interests, polarise societies plagued by eroding identities, a sense of alienation and ridden by individual and collective fears. Such a situation breeds divisive hate politics, co-opting people into a consolidated majority that oppresses minorities and the marginalised. An underlying narrative filled with falsified myth and imagery sustains this process and is concretised in fabricated religion-political ideology, which is operationalised into an actionable agenda.”
On August 2, the Jharkhand government cleared the draft of the “Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Bill 2017” also known as “Jharkhand Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam”. The Bill will be tabled in the upcoming Monsoon Session of the Legislative Assembly which begins on August 8. The Bill is to come into force from its date of issuance. Its passage is of course a foregone conclusion, with the ruling party in a massive majority, and the governor a very willing partner. One can expect the rules to be framed forthwith for the law to become operational.
With this Bill, the anti-conversion mood also enters the upper reaches of India away from the central region. Jharkhand was once a part of Bihar, and much of its wealth and property is in the hands of non-Tribals, who also wield the most political power, if often through proxy. The Bill will be challenged in court. But the Supreme Court has earlier, in the notorious Stanislaus Judgement, upheld such laws as not violating the Constitution.
In the English version of the Draft Bill, released to the media by the Evangelical Fellowship of India, Section 3 says, “No person shall attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion / religious faith to another by use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means, nor shall any person abet any such conversion.”
Violation of the terms of the above section shall invite imprisonment up to three years or Rupees 50,000 or both. In case the violation involves a minor, a woman or a person from the SC/ST community, the prison term would be up to four years and the penalty up to Rupees 1 lakh.
Section 5 of the draft also makes prior permission mandatory for conversion and demands that the person who converts any other person from one religion / religious faith to another, either by performing the ceremony himself for such conversion as a religious priest or takes part directly or indirectly in such ceremony shall take prior permission for such proposed conversion from the District Magistrate by applying in such form as may be prescribed by rules.
The draft also demands that the convert intimates the District Magistrate of the District in which the conversion ceremony has taken place of the fact of such conversion “within such period and such form as may be prescribed by the rule.”
Failure to comply with the provisions of Section 5 of the draft will invite imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend to five thousand or both.
Similar laws already exist in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. They were made in Rajasthan, and were made and withdrawn in Tamil Nadu, and the sections of the Jharkhand Bill borrow liberally from them.
Not that there is need of a bill of this nature in the times of a BJP regime. Even earlier, the police, the Sangh cadres and even some Congressmen seemed to presume that India had a nation-wide law against conversions to Christianity. Many governments, and officials, had also interpreted the Presidential Order of 1950 as an anti-conversion bill as it made affirmative action into a privilege for Hindus, and conversion inviting punishment of such benefits being denied to the new Christian. The matter is now before a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India. In states such as Odisha, government servants recruited on the scheduled caste reserved quota are being hounded and investigated to see if they are converts to Christianity.
But though such laws existed in some Hindu principalities in colonial India in early 20th Century, since Independence, the Union or state government have not been able to define the terms inducement, coercion, force or fraud in the context of religion. The Government and in fact the Supreme Court – which considered the matter more than once – have not given a definitive definition of the term ‘religion’ specially when it relates to faiths other than Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, or Buddhism. They felt happy defining Hinduism as a “way of life”, without explaining if all other religions were also not ways of life, or adjudicating how does one covert from a way of life to a well-defined religion such as Islam or Christianity.
After 70 years of being a Republic, indigenous faith and belief systems of hundreds, if not thousands of small communities across the country, and especially in what are called tribal areas, are not listed in a separate Schedule of the Constitution, but are lumped together under the majority religion.
It has been repeatedly pointed out that the government has also not been able to adduce any proof or evidence over half a century of aggressive implementation of such laws, of any forcible conversions by Christians against whom such laws are essentially targeted. There are hardly any convictions in courts to sustain police and political allegations of forcible and fraudulent conversions. As a matter of fact, the Himachal Pradesh High Court, a few years ago, struck down efforts by the government to force prior approval, after the Evangelical Fellowship of India moved a petition along with other parties.
Several high courts in their rulings have, on the other hand, seemingly encouraged conversions to Hinduism, or Ghar Wapsi as the Sangh calls it, by ordering that they be given Scheduled caste rights if community leaderships admitted them into the fold.
The law comes in the backdrop of a well-orchestrated demand, in fact a promise, by the ruling BJP, for a national legislation. Such a promise was made by the incoming vice president of India, Mr. M Venkaiah Naidu when he was a Union Minister and before that the President of the Bharatiya Janata party. The incumbent President of India, Mr. Ram Kovind had in his political years as BJP general secretary said Islam and Christianity were “alien” faiths and their followers were not entitled to the rights of other marginalised people.
Critics say such laws go against not just Constitutional guarantees of freedom of faith for citizens who profess religions other than Hinduism, but will also violate the federal structure in which law and order is a state subject.
The Christian Collective, in its submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council for India’s Third Universal Period Review in Geneva this year, had written: “ Conversions to Christianity have taken place all over the country, for many centuries that Christianity has existed in India. Conversions are not restricted to the Christian religion alone. However, Hindu right wing forces have been spreading false propaganda that Christian missionaries are forcibly and fraudulently converting tribals and Dalits into Christianity, and that Hindus would soon become a minority in India. For example, the VHP leader Pramod Mishra alleged that Christian missionaries were “silently working on their agenda, converting tribals.” This is used to justify enacting anti-conversion laws, euphemistically titled as ‘Freedom of Religion’ Acts, by various states.
These legislations go beyond preventing forced conversions, and have a very clear pro-Hindu and anti-Christian bias that is built into the provisions of law. Some problematic aspects are:
The provisions of law are attracted if the conversion involves ‘allurement’ and ‘inducement’, which are ambiguous and over-broad terms. “ Allurement” as per the Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and the now repealed Tamil Nadu Act “means offer of any temptation in the form of; any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind; grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise.” “Inducement‟ as used in the Himachal Pradesh, Orissa and Arunachal Acts “includes the offer of any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind and shall also include the grant of any benefit, either pecuniary or otherwise.” The possibility of better health facilities, free or subsidized education in an English medium school for the children, and an improved social status could also fall within the ambit of these terms.
Under most state legislations, ‘force’ includes ‘show of force or threat of injury or threat of divine displeasure or social excommunication.’ The reference to ‘divine displeasure’ is specifically intended for Abrahamic religions including Christianity, where a belief remains that non-believers would suffer divine displeasure of some sort.
The laws regulate all conversions by instituting a system of administrative controls – including the filing of notice of conversion, both by the individual and the priest concerned, to an authority (First Class Magistrate / District Magistrate), who will pass on the information to the police, who is duty-bound to investigate if the conversion is voluntary in nature, and report back to the magistrate in a time-bound manner. The District Magistrate is mandated to maintain a register of all conversions and send monthly reports of the same to the state government. This cumbersome administrative procedure a) deters an individual from conversion; and b) provides avenues for the police and other officials to persuade / threaten / intimidate / harass / extort money from the individual who intends to convert.
There are hardly any cases of forcible conversions from Hinduism that are registered under these stringent laws. However, on the garb of protecting innocent women, Dalits and tribals from forcible / fraudulent conversions, in effect, these laws deter and prevent conversions out of Hinduism. This violates the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief of those who wish to convert from Hinduism. On the other hand, as observed by the National Commission for Minorities, even in cases of forcible conversions to Hinduism, such as during the violence in Kandhamal, Odisha in 2008, these anti-conversion laws are not applied. Despite such directives, the State agencies have deliberately failed to register, investigate and prosecute persons who initiated and conducted such forcible conversions to Hinduism.
Christian organizations have often pointed out that such laws, and the impunity they generate, have been used to wreak violence on pastors, Nuns, and Church-run educational and religious institutions throughout the country. They are sometimes deemed to be in force in states where they actually do not exist.
The anti-conversion laws have brought India unnecessary opprobrium internationally. Anti-conversion laws are routinely listed as the negative practices of the Indian system, in review of our Human Rights record at various international fora. As with the anti-Dalit Christian laws, the so called anti-conversion laws, ironically titled freedom of religion laws, are aimed at taking away the freedom of religion and rights of Tribals and other marginalized sections of the Indian society.
The University of Ghent portal summarised the debate “In May 2006, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the new Indian ambassador to the Holy See, referring to the anti-conversion laws as “the reprehensible attempt to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right of religious freedom.” In response, the Indian Foreign Ministry declared sharply that India is a secular and democratic country guaranteeing equality for all religious faiths. But the Pope does not stand alone here. In 2009, a special rapporteur of the United Nations pointed out that the anti-conversion laws “raise serious human rights concerns.” The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom decided in 2009 to put India on its “watch list” of countries requiring close monitoring on religious freedom issues because of its anti-conversion legislations.”
We must realise that the bill is both a stratagem and a smokescreen. It terrorises a church which is tiring or reluctant of constant confrontation with an overwhelming powerful state, while dividing the tribals who had united on the land issue irrespective of their faith and beliefs.
(Published on 07th August 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 32)