Why Jharkhand’s anti-conversion bill is against Constitution and not necessary
It is a difficult time to be a part of the minority community in India today with threats of various sorts coming from different quarters. But a new assault on them is the approval by the Jharkhand Cabinet of a stringent anti-conversion law, titled in characteristic double-speak, as the Religious Freedom Bill, 2017. It contains stiff jail sentences and fines for converting people through “allurement” or “coercion”.
A day before this Cabinet decision, residents of Jharkhand awoke to front-page advertisements with pictures of Mahatma Gandhi, and a toxic quote attributed to him attacking conversions by Christian missionaries. As a columnist wrote in an online publication, the words were pulled out of context and distorted. Gandhi must not be appropriated by an ideology that is violently opposed to all he stood far: An India with full religious freedom and equal rights. And it is intensely worrying that taxpayers’ money is used to foment hatred against a segment of people of the state.
Christians constitute a small 4.3% of the population of Jharkhand. The same tribal family may have adherents of the animist Sarna faith (comprising nearly 13% of the population), Christians and persons who identify themselves as Hindus. Left to themselves, tribal families and communities live with peace with this diversity of faith practices. But the propaganda of the Right-wing, now backed by the state government, aggravated by the draconian anti-conversion law, will tear apart these families and communities.
The proposed anti-conversion law in Jharkhand has fostered enormous disquiet among Christians everywhere in India. The ultra Right-wing regards Islam and Christianity to be a “foreign” religion, and therefore requires its adherents to respect “Hindu” culture and practices. But to advance its political juggernaut objectives, it has built alliances with Christian community leaders in some parts of India, such as Kerala and north-eastern states. However, particularly in large tribal states of central India like Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, the political strategy of choice has been to target, defame and intimidate Christians, with violence against their shrines, priests, nuns and women, and with laws that criminalise conversions to Christianity.
But it must be stressed that Jharkhand will not be the first government to pass an anti-conversion law if this is voted for by the state assembly. Anti-conversion laws were passed in Orissa in 1967 under a Swatantra Party government; in Madhya Pradesh in 1968 under the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal coalition (which included the Jan Sangh); and in Gujarat in 2003 and Chhattisgarh in 2006 under BJP governments. The Jayalalithaa government in Tamil Nadu passed the law in 2002 but repealed it in two years after its passage in 2004. The only Congress government to pass such a law was in Himachal Pradesh in 2006. Rajasthan passed an anti-conversion law in 2006, but the governor refused to sign the law. Arunachal Pradesh passed such a law in 1978 under the People’s Party of Arunachal, but it was never enforced as rules have not been framed to date.
Members of the Constituent Assembly took great care to uphold the freedom of religious belief in India’s Constitution. After extended debate, it decided that this freedom should not just be to practise and profess one’s faith, but also to propagate it. KM Munshi declared that “under freedom of speech which the Constitution guarantees, it will be open to any religious community to persuade other people to join their faith”.
However, organisations like the RSS never reconciled to this fundamental guarantee of the Constitution. They rail against the “menace” of Christian conversions allegedly funded by big foreign money. It matters little that the facts don’t bear out their claims. Christians constituted 2.5% of India’s population in 1981, and 2.3% in 1991, 2001 and 2011. If large-scale conversions were indeed occurring, their numbers would have swelled. This sustained misinformation has resulted in profound and sometimes violent schisms between Christian and other tribal people.
In this divisive competition for the religious allegiance of India’s poorest and most vulnerable people, marked by stridency and hate, it is important to recall the gentle counsel of one of the world’s tallest public figures, the Dalai Lama: “It does not matter which God you worship, or even if you worship no God. What is important is to be a compassionate human being”.
Harsh Mander is author, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India
The views expressed are personal