ucanews.com reporter, DelhiUpdated: April 19, 2015 05:43 PM GMT
Indian Christian devotees carry wooden crosses during a Good Friday procession in Amritsar earlier this month (AFP Photo/Narinder Nanu)
The Indian government’s push for a national law banning religious conversions hit a roadblock this week when the Ministry of Law and Justice said the federal government had no powers to enact such a law. However, the debate continues with the government pressing on.
The federal law ministry Wednesday told the government that a national law restricting changes of religion could violate the federal system, as the constitution stipulates that passing laws on such matters rests with individual states, according to local media reports.
Religious conversions have become a sensitive subject in India after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Delhi a year ago. Nationalist Hindu groups have been clamoring for a national law banning conversions, claiming that Christians and Muslims convert hundreds of poor people every year, attracting converts with promises of social services.
Seven Indian states have already enacted laws restricting conversions as a matter of "public order," which is listed in the constitution as a subject for which states can enact legislation.
Despite this week’s apparent setback, however, there may still be room for the BJP-led government to push forward with some form of national legislation.
The Indian constitution delineates certain matters as the responsibility of either the federal government or individual states.
However, issues such as social security and education are seen as “concurrent” subjects.
Sadanand Gowda, the minister of law and justice, said he believes religious conversions may well fall under this "concurrent list" of subjects.
"There are several issues which need to be looked into. Religious practice and conversions essentially come under the concurrent list. And, therefore states are free to legislate on the matter," Gowda told ucannews.com.
State anti-conversion laws, conflictingly called “freedom of religion” acts, make conversion without the permission of district authorities a punishable offense. Some also have provisions to punish the minster officiating the conversion ritual.
The BJP's push for a national law began after Home Minister Rajnath Singh called for a public debate on the issue last month while opening the annual Conference of State Minorities Commissions.
"We are only saying that there should be an anti-conversion law. There should be a debate over it. We must think on bringing an anti-conversion law,” Singh said at the conference.
A source in the BJP told ucanews.com that the government is also examining a clause in the constitution, which says that a federal law prevails over a state law on a particular activity, if the laws are in conflict with each other.
The opponents of the law — including Christian and Muslim groups — see the move as being anti-democratic and anti-secular.
The move "clearly shows the mischievous intentions of the central government to cap the freedom of religion and freedom to follow a faith," said Navaid Hamid, secretary of the South Asian Council for Minorities.
The BJP-led government, said Hamid, "does not believe in the constitution. It has a desire to crush all the fundamental rights of minorities. The government is working on a sectarian, anti-women, anti-minority agenda, which is taking the country backwards.”
Christian officials like Fr Paul Thelakkat, the spokesman for the Syrian Catholic Church in Kerala, believe laws restricting conversion are "absolutely not needed in India, not in states, not at the national level".
"There are enough laws in this country to punish those who violate public order and social harmony," he said.
The push toward anti-conversion laws is governed, he said, by a fear that Hindus, who comprise the dominant religion in India, will someday become a minority religion.
"It is a pity that Hindu leaders have no faith in the truth and strength of their own religion. The BJP believes that the Hindu religion will not survive in relation to other religions. So they are trying to fence their own religion by laws," the priest said.