The Indian government seems to think an absolute ban on conversions to Christianity is the only way to prevent Hindu nationalists from attacking nuns, clergy and churches across the country.
Judging by recent statements from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s senior ministers, the first contours of such a law may soon become apparent.
Civil rights groups have recorded 168 incidents of targeted violence against the Christian community in the 300 days since Modi took power, and the nationalist rhetoric is heating up as the prime minister prepares his party for legislative assembly elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to wrest power.
The BJP has repeatedly promised an anti-conversion law during general elections in 2014. Indeed, that promise was a revival of a previous effort in 1978, when OP Tyagi of the then unified Janata party tried to move a draft law, ironically called the Freedom of Religion Bill, in the lower house of parliament.
That law failed, but former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999 revived debate on the law after two dozen small churches were destroyed in the Dangs region of Gujarat.
Vajpayee visited the area to survey the damage and concluded that the Christian community had brought the violence upon itself, though he was unable to pass a national freedom of religion law at the time.
But the Gujarat state government, under the leadership of Modi at that time, did pass legislation that criminalized religious conversion that could be traced to force or fraud.
Similar laws had earlier been enacted in Arunachal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and later by Himachal Pradesh, which prescribed stiff punishments. Tamil Nadu also passed such a law but quickly withdrew it after protests from the politically powerful Christian community in the state.
These provincial laws have survived legal challenges by Christians in India’s high courts — most recently in Himachal Pradesh — and in the Supreme Court, which has ruled that while citizens have the right to choose or change their faith, the constitutional right to propagate religion did not include the right to “convert another person to one’s own religion”.
Amid ongoing warnings that Muslims in India are poised to overwhelm the Hindu nation, religious nationalists have also demanded that there be a law to curb the growth of the Christian population, which it says has been propelled by uncontrolled proselytization by Western evangelical groups and politically powerful Catholics in the Congress party.
A national religious freedom law would require an amendment to the constitution, which currently guarantees freedom of faith. The government is in no position to pass such a law, given its minority presence in the India’s upper house.
Modi has only hinted at the culpability of religious minorities in communal discord, while his ministers have been much more explicit.
Parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu, Finance Minister Arun Jaitely and several junior ministers have repeatedly noted the urgent need to have a national law against conversions to stop the violence against the Christian community.
Home Minister Rajnath Singh took the matter further. “Why do we do conversions? If we want to do service, let us do service. But should service be done for the purpose of religious conversion,” he said recently during a conference with state minority commissioners in Delhi.
Without naming her, Singh revived criticism of Mother Teresa and the view that her charity work was motivated by a desire to convert people to Christianity.
Singh feels — as does his party — that conversions will change the demography of India, and therefore make it lose its cultural Hindu identity.
While President Pranab Mukherjee has condemned violence against religious minorities, he has not weighed in on the issue of anti-conversion laws. That has been left to his vice president, Hamid Ansari, who has repeatedly cautioned the state governments from meddling in religious issues.
More than once, Ansari has argued that the freedom to change one’s religion remains a fundamental right and that no one religion should be granted any official status.
Religious minorities have so far failed to forge a united movement against such laws, and Christians have been forced to seek recourse in the courts.
The Sikh community has not been the target of anti-conversion laws, despite the violence unleashed during a period of insurrectionist terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s. Though it has attracted many Hindus into its fold, it does not actively seek converts.
Muslims have also not been the focus of these laws, despite some criticism over the rate of their population growth in the country. Among Christians, the Syrian denominations have denied any involvement in proselytization, instead blaming evangelical groups.
But increasingly in recent years, activists within the Christian community in India and civil society groups have argued that the constitutional right to profess, practice and propagate religion must be defended in order to prevent further erosion of civil liberties that could alter the basic character of Indian democracy.
John Dayal is a political columnist, spokesman of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights and a past President of the all India Catholic Union.