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Prominent Indians call for repeal of anti-conversion laws

Religious conversions are used as a pretext to attack Christians despite their declining numbers, says Ram Puniyani
Prominent Indians call for repeal of anti-conversion laws

A woman looks on as she participates with Christians in a special 'Prayer for our Country' organized to celebrate India's Republic Day at the Union Chapel in Kolkata on Jan. 26, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 14, 2022 09:45 AM GMT
Updated: February 14, 2022 10:18 AM GMT

Prominent Indian citizens including Christians have demanded a repeal of all anti-conversion laws in the country even as the southern state of Karnataka prepared to set the seal on its law to prevent religious conversions.

The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, which was passed by the legislative assembly on Dec. 24, 2021, is likely to be tabled before the upper house for its approval later this month.

“Wherever the anti-conversion law, ironically officially called the Freedom of Religion Act, was passed, it became a justification for the persecution of minorities and other marginalized identities,” said the petition initiated by the National Solidarity Forum (NSF), a network of groups and individuals formed in response to the anti-Christian Kandhamal riots in 2007-08.

“The attacks on minorities grew sharply in recent years since this law was used as a weapon targeting the dignity of Christians and Muslims, particularly belonging to Dalits, Adivasis and women,” added the petition addressed to Indian President Ram Nath Kovind.

The signatories included Margaret Alva, former governor of Goa, Gujarat and Uttarakhand; Admiral L. Ramdas, former chief of the Indian navy; Mallika Sarabhai, danseuse and choreographer; Medha Patkar, social activist; Mani Shankar Aiyar, a Congress leader; and Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore.

The petition called for joining hands to defend the values enshrined in the Indian constitution and protection of human rights of minorities and other marginalized sections in India.

The law disrespects women and places restrictions for a woman to choose her partner. It is conceived with a notion that women in India are not in a position to think on their own 

NSF convener and social activist Ram Punyani said there have been scattered and sporadic attacks on Christians across India under the pretext of alleged religious conversions by force, fraud, coercion or allurement even though the census shows a decline in the percentage of Christians from 2.6 percent in 1971 to 2.3 percent in 2011.

These anti-conversion laws were an attempt to intimidate the Christian community, he said.

Margaret Alva appealed to the NSF to intensify efforts to dissuade the Karnataka government from passing this anti-conversion bill. “I request you to sign this appeal to withdraw the anti-Christian bill and such laws in other states of the country,” she urged Indians of all hues.

John Dayal, a human rights activist and a founder member of the NSF, said anti-conversion laws were not affecting Christians alone but were also meant to further persecute Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis and women in India.

The law was “meant to strengthen religious conflicts and majoritarian nationalism in India. Moreover, it infantilizes the poor and gives the state power over matters that are deeply personal,” said Brinnelle D’Souza, a health expert.

“The law disrespects women and places restrictions for a woman to choose her partner. It is conceived with a notion that women in India are not in a position to think on their own and act on their own. This law is highly patriarchal. It is not acceptable,” said Vidya Dinkar, a human rights activist and a core team member of NSF.

The Karnataka bill makes religious conversion a non-bailable and cognizable offense, with provisions for imprisonment between three to 10 years and fines up to  50,000 rupees.

Similar laws have been enacted or proposed in other Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, all ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, which also rules in Karnataka.

Christians make up 1.87 percent of Karnataka’s population of 68.4 million.

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