Indian state sharpens law to check 'forced conversions'

Himachal Pradesh decides that existing law was ineffective and failed to deter offenders
Indian state sharpens law to check 'forced conversions'

Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur addresses the state legislative assembly in Shimla on Aug. 30. (IANS photo)

India’s Himachal Pradesh state has enacted a new law regulating religious conversions, saying the existing one was not stringent enough to check an increase in forced conversions in the northern state.

The state government, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), passed the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill 2019 on Aug. 30 to replace a similar law enacted in 2006.

State Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur told the assembly that forced conversions were increasing and the existing law was ineffective to stop them.

He said the law needed to change because the punishment prescribed wasn’t sufficient to act as a deterrent, conversion for the sole purpose of marriage was not considered a violation, and organizations involved in forced conversions were not held responsible.

“The new act will be more stringent," he said.

The new law stipulates seven years in jail for violations, up from three years in the previous law.

The earlier law prohibited conversion by use of force or inducement or by fraudulent means but the new law prohibits conversion by use of force, misrepresentation, undue influence, coercion, inducement or by any other fraudulent means, such as changing religion for the sole purpose of marrying.

An organization or individual violating the law will not be allowed to accept any donation from within or outside India.

The law also states that both parties — the candidate for conversion and the minister officiating it — must give one month’s notice to their district magistrate.

Bishop Gerald John Mathias of Lucknow said that “only time will tell how the new bill will affect” the tiny Christian community in the state.

Himachal Pradesh has some 6.8 million people, with 95 percent of them Hindus. Christians account for only 0.18 percent of the population at just 13,000.

Bishop Mathias, who was formerly bishop of Simla Chandigarh Diocese that covers the state, said “as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, there are absolutely no cases of any forced conversion” because “the Church does not believe in such activities.”

Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said anti-conversion laws aim to prevent forced conversions. “The laws do not ban conversions so long as they are voluntary,” he said.

A.C. Michael, a former member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said there had been reports of Dalit groups from the state joining Islam. “But as far as Christians are concerned, the state was relatively free” from harassment and violence, he said.

Christian and Muslim leaders say India has been witnessing increased religious polarization since the BJP came to power in New Delhi and several states in 2014. It has projected itself as the champion of Hindus, bolstering Hindu groups to step up action to turn India into a Hindu-only nation.

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Hindu groups and BJP leaders often accuse Christians of using force and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions. They often storm Christian prayer gatherings and accuse them of conducting conversion ceremonies.

Anti-conversion laws began to appear two decades after India's independence and such laws are in force in seven states: Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand.

No Christian has so far been convicted of conversion. However, several cases of violations have been filed in the last decade in northern Indian villages where Hindu groups interpreted Christian mission work as a facade for conversions.

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