A proposed anti-conversion law in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has triggered alarm bells among church and human rights activists who say it goes against the country’s Constitution.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath reportedly received the proposal to curb “forcible religious conversions” in a draft document submitted by the State Law Commission on Nov. 21.
According to commission chief, Justice Aditya Nath Mittal, “existing legal provisions are not enough to check religious conversion and on this serious matter, a new law is needed.”
Similar laws exist in several other Indian states, despite the constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion.
Any person is free to profess, practice and propagate a religion of one’s choice as a fundamental right, according to the charter. However, the reality is far different, activists and church groups say.
“The anti-conversion bill [in Uttar Pradesh] just focuses on minorities especially Christians, Catholics, and Muslims. This bill is to appease hardliners in the right-wing Hindu ultra-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) family,” said Jesuit Father Lourduraj Ignasimuthu, a media critic.
India’s ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological partner the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) want to use this law against hapless religious minorities, he added.
The RSS is a Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization which many claim is the parent organization of the BJP. Both are accused of wanting to make India a Hindu only country.
“Minorities should be wary of this and be cautious about their activities concerning religion. The BJP’s chief minister in Uttar Pradesh is just playing to his Hindutva [pro-Hindu ideology],” the priest said.
Uttar Pradesh, is a northern Indian state ruled by the BJP, which also controls the federal government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It is also the most populous state with 200 million, of which Christians number about 350,000 (0.18 percent of the population). Christians make up about 2.3 percent of India’s total population.
Under the proposed new state law, if a person wants to change religion, they need the prior permission of a government official. The proposed law also prohibits religious conversion by force, allurement or deceit.
Penalties for breaching the laws would range from jail terms of one to three years or fines from 5,000 rupees (US$70) to 50,000 rupees.
A child convert belonging to a socially and economically backward community — namely a low caste or tribal group — could face a stiffer punishment of being jailed for seven years.
“Conversion is linked with the right to freedom of faith. This is a law against the basic principle of the Indian Constitution,” said Lenin Raghuvanshi, a human rights activist.
“The proposed anti-conversion law is an instrument to silence Dalits [formerly lowest caste untouchables], the marginalized and religious minorities,” said Raghuvanshi, director of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), a Varanasi-based NGO that helps marginalized sections of society.
According to human rights activist John Dayal: “Chief Minister Adityanath is closely following a script written by his mentor Modi.”
There is no doubt that while the pretense is to contain the Muslim population, the real target is to stop Christianity in its tracks, Dayal said.
“Love jihad” or Muslim boys marrying Hindu girls is not so much an issue as the voluntary conversion of Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) to Christianity, said Dayal, who is also a Catholic lay leader.
Dalits and OBCs are educationally and socially disadvantaged groups who remain at the bottom of Indian society.
According to Dayal, Uttar Pradesh has several areas where people call themselves “bhaktas” or followers of Christ without officially having been baptized as Christians.
“They have now become a sizeable population,” he said.
Activists say that hardliners are seeking the greater goal of having a national law against conversions to Christianity. “These small incremental steps are in their nature testing of the waters,” Dayal said of state anti-conversion laws.
“Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has upheld the validity of such laws in the pretext of maintaining law and order. But according to us, freedom of faith is the mother of all human rights,” he said.
However hard-won constitutional rights must be upheld against those asserting themselves over weaker minorities so “we will go to the Supreme Court,” he added.