Pratap Chandra Sarangi (second from right) is sworn in as a union minister during a ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on May 30. His comments about religious conversion have been condemned by Christian leaders. (IANS photo)
Christian leaders in India have deplored a newly appointed federal minister’s description of religious conversion as “the exchange of sex for favors.”
Minister of State for Animal Husbandry Pratap Chandra Sarangi made the comment in an interview with English news portal ThePrint on June 3.
“Suppose somebody helped a girl in a medical or engineering college and wanted to enjoy the girl physically. That would be treated as a crime, an inhuman act,” said the first-time Odisha MP, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“Similarly, if somebody wants to convert or exploit someone’s belief by giving some service or money, then that should also be treated as a crime — a crime against nature, against humanity.”
Sarangi was the Odisha chief of Bajrang Dal, a hard-line Hindu group, when Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were burned alive by extremists in 1999. He was accused of being linked to the gruesome murders but denied the allegations.
Odisha, formerly Orissa, is an eastern state where Christians have faced sustained persecution, particularly during riots in 2008.
Father Kulakanta Dandasena from Kandhamal condemned Sarangi’s statement and said it sent a bad message to the country and the international community, “which sees India as a secular country that respects all classes, creeds and religions.”
“We totally disagree with whatever the minister has said because it is vulgar and not true,” he said. “Christians are not involved in any kind of religious conversion and have always respected other faiths and beliefs. We have no differences.”
Sarangi said he is against religious conversion as it is against the provisions of the Freedom of Religion Act, 1967. He added that it is illegal and subject to punishment under the law.
Referring to the murders of Staines and his two sons, aged 6 and 11, Sarangi said he had condemned the brutal murders at the time and dismissed allegations that he had supported Dara Singh, who was convicted of burning them alive in their vehicle.
Christian lay leader A.C. Michael, a former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, agreed with Sarangi that conversion through fraud, force and allurement is illegal and should be punished under the law.
“But if anyone wants to convert of their own free will with full knowledge, it is nobody’s business to interfere in that,” he said.
“The constitution of our country allows a person to change one’s religion. As for his example of women, it is not befitting to his stature of holding a minister’s post in the government of India. Sometimes I feel that Modi deliberately chooses such people of dubious distinction as his ministerial candidates.”
Joseph Dias, general secretary of the Mumbai-based Catholic Secular Forum, told ucanews.com that Sarangi was making this kind of statement to hide his past record. “It is very unfortunate and the minister should apologize for the remarks,” he said.
Many minority religious leaders say India has been witnessing increased religious polarization since the BJP came to power in 2014 after projecting itself as the champion of Hindus.
Religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims have been complaining of increased violence against their people. At least 10 Muslim men have been lynched and many injured by vigilante cow protection groups, many of which seemed to operate with the support of the BJP, rights group Amnesty India said in a report early this year.
Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using force and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions.
Despite anti-conversion laws, no Christian has been convicted of conversion despite several cases being filed. Many of these cases arose in northern Indian villages where Hindu groups interpreted Christian mission work in education and health care as fraudulent or being carried out with the goal of conversion.
Uttarakhand last year became the seventh state to enact the religious conversion law. The other states are Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand.