Members of the Sikh community protest outside the Pakistan embassy in New Delhi on Sept. 2 against the forceful conversion of minorities in Pakistan. (Photo: IANS)
Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state in northern India, has proposed a new anti-conversion law that is alarming Catholic leaders and activists.
The State Law Commission on Nov. 21 submitted a report to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath suggesting a new law to check “forcible religious conversions.”
Justice Aditya Nath Mittal, the head of the commission, said: “Existing legal provisions are not enough to check religious conversions and the state needs a new law on this serious matter.”
However, Bishop Gerald John Mathias of Lucknow told ucanews: “Even though it is just a proposed bill and has not passed in the assembly, it is indeed a matter of concern because it can be misused by majority groups against minorities.
“First of all, the Catholic Church does not promote or propagate religious conversions and until now there has been no record of any religious conversions in which the Church has been involved in Uttar Pradesh.
“We as a Church are engaged in many charitable works, as we are supposed to do. Our main concern is that any charitable work we do can be construed as an allurement to conversions. That is my main concern.”
The proposed legislation was prepared after lawmakers took into account pre- and post-independence laws in India and the neighboring countries of Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Following the lead of other states
The 268-page report includes recent newspaper clippings regarding forcible conversions, international covenants on the right to religion, plus anti-conversion laws in India and its neighbors.
It also deals with the constitutional framework of the right to freedom of religion in India, anti-conversion laws of various states along with a comparative study, recommendations of the law commission of India and extracts from important apex court and high court judgments, besides proceedings of the UP Legislative Assembly.
It pointed out that states like Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand had introduced special laws to ban conversions by force, fraud, marriage or allurement.
“The report was submitted along with the draft legislation, the Uttar Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2019,” said law commission secretary Sapna Tripathi.
The proposed law would increase the punishment for “forced conversion” to seven years if the convert was under 18 or belonged to one of India’s scheduled castes or scheduled tribes, who have traditionally been on the bottom rung of society.
Uttar Pradesh, with nearly 200 million people, is the most populous state in India but only about 350,000 Christians live in the state, a minuscule 0.18 percent of the population. By comparison, Christians make up nearly 2.5 percent of India’s 1.36 billion population.
Uttar Pradesh, like the national government, is run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.
India’s Freedom of Religion Acts or “anti-conversion” laws are state-level statutes that have been enacted to regulate religious conversions. The laws are in force in 10 out of 28 states: Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand.
While there are some variations between the state laws, they are very similar in their content and structure. All seek to prevent any person from converting or attempting to convert, either directly or otherwise, another person through “forcible” or “fraudulent” means, or by “allurement” or “inducement.”
However, the anti-conversion laws in Rajasthan and Arunachal Pradesh appear to exclude reconversions to “native” or “original” faiths.
Penalties for breaching the laws can range from fines of 5,000 rupees (US$70) to 50,000 rupees or imprisonment from one to three years.
Some of the laws provide for stiffer penalties if women, children, or members of scheduled castes or schedule tribes are being converted.
Little evidence of forced conversions
Despite criticism of India’s anti-conversion laws, some human rights bodies have acknowledged that they have resulted in few arrests and no convictions. However, some observers note that the laws create a hostile, and on occasion violent, environment for religious minority communities because they do not require any evidence to support accusations of wrongdoing.
India is home to a diversity of religious beliefs and practices, while the Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of four major world religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. According to reported 2011 census data, 79.80 percent of the Indian population are Hindu, 14.23 percent Muslim, 2.30 percent Christian, 1.72 percent Sikh, 0.70 percent Buddhist and 0.37 percent Jain.
Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said: “The action of the law panel is [part of an] opportunistic agenda to create cyclic violence against the Christian community.”
“It has exposed the agenda of the present government to tinker with the constitution of India. Its credentials as a secular, democratic, country are undermined by restricting the religious freedom of a section of society.
“India is being pulled down from the lofty heights of being a tolerant nation to the likes of a Talibanized medieval country.”
Muhammad Arif, chairman of the Center for Harmony and Peace, said: “The Indian constitution guarantees that we can practice and follow any faith according to our choice, so introducing this bill is tantamount to checking one’s faith, which is a human rights violation.
“This law is not needed. It in is uncalled for and the Uttar Pradesh government should instead get serious about unemployment, hunger, poverty and youth in the state. The world is talking about development and the government should focus on that.”