Anti-Conversion Laws: India must be held accountale – Barnabas Edit

August 9, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-india

Indian Christians at prayerIndia, August 08, 2013: India’s anti-conversion laws are expanding, posing a serious threat to religious freedom and putting the country’s minorities, especially Christians, at growing risk of abuse and violence at the hands of militant Hindus who want to make the country religiously pure.

These laws, some of which are called, ironically, “Freedom of Religion Acts”, have been introduced in eight Indian states, with others pushing for them.

They are ostensibly intended to prevent religious conversions by “force”, “fraud” or “allurement” but are often used to threaten legitimate evangelism by Christians. They have come about as a result of pressure from a growing Hindu nationalist movement called Hindutva, which is striving to make India a religiously pure nation. Proponents are strongly opposed to the conversion of Hindus to Christianity or other minority religions, claiming that this poses a threat to Indian society.

The electoral success of Hindutva’s political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has enabled it to introduce anti-conversion laws on a state level, and with general elections pending next year, it has pledged to introduce national legislation to curb “missionary” activity and end proselytising if elected.

The BJP is the second largest political party in India. It currently holds a majority in four states, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Goa, and shares power with other parties in Punjab and Nagaland.

Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh were the first to introduce anti-conversion legislation, with Tamil Nadu, Gurjarat, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajastan following suit. Five are currently in force. The one in Arunachal Pradesh is yet to be implemented, while Rajastan’s has not become law because it still requires the signature of the state governor. The act introduced in Tamil Nadu in 2002 was withdrawn in May 2004 after the defeat of the BJP in state elections. A fourth attempt to table a bill in Maharashtra is underway, while the existing law in Madhya Pradesh is being strengthened.

CHRISTIANS TARGETED

Although only a handful of people have been convicted under the anti-conversion laws, Hindu militants use them to justify acts of violence against minorities, whom they accuse of forcibly converting people, and to pressurise the police to arrest those involved in outreach.

Hostility among militant Hindus towards conversions extends beyond the states where prohibitive laws exist, leaving Christians, especially converts and those involved in outreach, vulnerable throughout the country.

In one recent example, seven pastors were severely injured in an attack on a prayer meeting by a group of around 50 Hindu extremists in Mandal, Hyderabad. Armed with sticks and rods, the attackers broke into the Telugu Baptist Church building, on 4 June, where 20 pastors had gathered to pray.

They accused the pastors of forcibly converting people to Christianity and dragged some of them out of the building into the street. The Hindus brutally attacked them, leaving some of them unconscious; seven required hospital treatment for serious injuries.

In another case, a pastor was locked up for two days in Tamil Nadu for baptising a 30-year-old woman on 18 July. Extremists from the Rashtriya Sawayamseval Sangh (RSS) group claimed that the river in which she was baptised had been contaminated and that the Rev. R. Reuben was converting people by force.

Christian ministers could face up to four years in jail in Madhya Pradesh after the state’s Legislative Assembly passed on 10 July an amendment to the existing anti-conversion law, which strengthens its provisions.

It requires both converts and ministers to obtain permission from the authorities at least one month in advance. The minister would have to provide details of the venue and date of the ceremony along with a list of names and addresses of all the participating converts. The amendment enables a police inquiry to take place upon request.

Those who fail to comply could be punished with a fine and up to three years in prison, increasing to four years in the case of converts who are minors, women or members of the country’s Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes.

The bill still requires the signature of the state governor before being enacted. Christians and other minorities are opposing the law, organising protests and seeking to mount a legal challenge.

LAWS CHALLENGED

 

The Vidhan Bhavan, seat of the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly

The Vidhan Bhavan, seat of the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly

They may succeed; there is precedent for such restrictions on citizens’ rights being struck down. Last year, the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) brought a successful legal challenge against the anti-conversion law in Himachal Pradesh. The high court ruled that some of its provisions were unconstitutional, but the rest of the act was upheld. One of the clauses that was struck down also features in the Madhya Pradesh amendment: the requirement for a person intending to convert to give 30 days’ notice to the district magistrate.

The EFI challenged the law because of the ways in which it was being used, especially by Hindu extremists, to stop people from converting to Christianity.

Those wanting to convert were listed in a public registry, which was checked by Hindu extremists, who then tracked down, persecuted, and even murdered new Christians. People wanting to become Hindus did not, however, need to give public notice.

The judges in that case affirmed the rights of conscience and belief, the freedom to change religion and the right to keep beliefs secret, but they did not go as far as striking the law down altogether.

The proposed anti-conversion bill in Maharashtra is also being challenged by Christians. Around 50 organisations from across Mumbai have written to the state’s chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, urging its withdrawal. They expressed their “total disbelief … that a secular government in the state of Maharashtra would ever think of introducing such a bill which is anti-minority and against the constitutional rights of a minority”.

They have support from the National Congress Party, whose spokesman said:

“The RSS agenda will not be tolerated. Every person has a right to choose one’s own religion. It is a fundamental right. We will put a stop to the bill in case this happens.”

India’s anti-conversion laws fly in the face of international human rights law and the country’s own constitution. Christians and others are standing up against them, but their small voice is in danger of being drowned out as the Hindutva movement, emboldened by growing support and influence, shouts louder.

The international community must hold India to account for breaching its commitments to human rights and help the country’s vulnerable minorities who are falling victim to these discriminatory and disingenuous laws.

– barnabas team

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