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Indian Christians wary of state's plan to beef up anti-conversion law

Pro-Hindu government in central Chhattisgarh state is making move with upcoming polls in mind, warns Bishop Paul Toppo
Pro-Hindu government in central Chhattisgarh state is making move with upcoming polls in mind, warns Bishop Paul Toppo

Indians convert to Buddhism in Gujarat on Sept. 30, 2017.  The pro-Hindu party runs a national-level campaign called 'ghar wapsi' (home coming) to bring back Hindus who joined other religions. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 19, 2024 11:10 AM GMT
Updated: February 19, 2024 12:03 PM GMT

The provincial government of a central Indian state has announced plans to add more teeth to its sweeping anti-conversion law, which is often used to target Christians in the country.

The proposed bill by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Chhattisgarh requires individuals seeking to convert to another religion to apply at least 60 days in advance to the district magistrate.

The Chhattisgarh Religion Freedom (Amendment) Act, 2006, requires the application to be submitted 30 days in advance.

The proposed law will also have more punitive measures to stop fraudulent religious conversions in the state, known for its large tribal population.

It proposes a punishment of a minimum of two years and a maximum of 10 years in prison, along with a fine of Rs 25,000 (US$301) for illegally converting minors, women, or persons belonging to the tribal community.

Mass conversion is punishable by a minimum of three years and a maximum of 10 years, along with a fine of Rs 50,000.

The proposed law, however, would not apply to those who want to convert back to their previous religion.

“The state already has an ant-conversion law. So, why do we need another bill?” asked Bishop Paul Toppo of Raigarh diocese based in the state.

The prelate told UCA News on Feb. 19 that the move raises suspicion of a hidden agenda because the country is headed to a general election this April-May.

"There is no doubt that the proposed bill is to target minority communities like Christians and Muslims," he added.

Under the new bill, conversions through abuse of power, coercion, undue influence, incitement, fraudulent means, or through marriage would be considered illegal.

Brijmohan Agarwal, minister for religious trusts and endowments, speaking in the state assembly on Feb. 13, warned that many forces were “at work to alter the demography of Chhattisgarh."

A.C. Michael, president of the Federation of Catholic Associations of Archdiocese of Delhi. said that “Agarwal is liable to be questioned for making a false statement in the assembly as there are no illegal conversions taking place in the state.”

Michael asked the minister to “come up with evidence to prove his claims.”

Hindu groups aligned with the BJP are involved in a nationwide campaign called ghar wapsi (homecoming) to bring back tribal people and Dalits or former untouchables, who make up more than 25 percent of India's 1.4 billion population, to Hindu religion.

"With the new law, they will beef up their plans to reconvert tribal people through the ghar wapsi program," said Bishop Toppo.

Anti-conversion laws with draconian provisions are in force in 11 Indian states, most of them ruled by the BJP.

The New Delhi-based United Christian Forum (UCF), an ecumenical body that records Christian persecution across the country, has recorded 148 incidents of violence against Christians in Chhattisgarh during 2023.

According to UCF, India witnessed 720 attacks against Christians last year.

Christians make up less than 2 percent of Chhattisgarh’s 30 million people and tribal communities account for 30 percent of the state's population.

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