Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghuvar Das at a program of his pro-Hindu BJP in state capital Ranchi, folds his hands as gesture of thanks. His government has cleared an anti-conversion bill. (Photo by IANS)
The eastern Indian state of Jharkhand has passed a law criminalizing religious conversions despite similar laws in six other states being used by hard-line Hindu groups to target Christians.
The bill passed the state legislative assembly on Aug. 12. Critics see irony in the title of the Religious Freedom Bill 2017. It has faced increasing opposition since Aug. 1 when it was cleared by the state cabinet of the ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government.
Chief Minister Raghuvar Das has been pushing for the bill since December 2014 when his party and coalition partners came to power.
The law against conversion by force or allurement provides for up to three years' imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 rupees (US$800). Those wishing to convert need to inform top district official of the reasons for, and the place of conversion, or face prosecution. There are more severe punishments for using "force" to convert minors and women as well as members of tribal minorities and lower castes.
In other states, Hindu extremists have allegedly misused the law to file false charges against pastors and to intimidate Christians. They often interpret Christian missionary services, such as education and health care, as constituting allurement or force to secure conversions among the poor.
Christians have been running hundreds of schools and medical facilities in the region assisting tribal and lower caste people, with a majority of the beneficiaries being non-Christian.
Cardinal Telesphore Placidaus Toppo of Ranchi who is based in the Jharkhand state capital, said the law is "against the spirit and tenets" of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees freedom to profess, preach and propagate religions of choice.
"I have never come across any forceful religious conversion as alleged," the cardinal said.Jharkhand is 4.5 percent Christian, almost double the national average of 2.3 percent. However, Christians continue to be a tiny minority after more than a century of mission work. There are just 1.4 million Christians out of a state population of 33 million, mostly tribal people or those belonging to what was formerly known as the "untouchable" castes.
Former chief minister Babulal Marandi, who now leads one of the opposition parties, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, said the bill violates fundamental constitutional guarantees.
"The BJP government is not ready to follow the constitution and laws in the country," he said.
Hemant Soren, the leader of the opposition in the state assembly, told local media that the law aims to harass minority communities.
Many Christian organizations, such as Jharkhand Christian Youth Association, Jharkhand Christian Workers' Association and Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh (national Christian conference) have opposed it.
The BJP is considered by many to be the political wing of Hindu groups that want to establish an upper-caste Hindu hegemony in India.