By Robin Gomes
The government of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, led by the pro-Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)), passed a bill last week to check what it describes “forcible religious conversions”. Cutting across party affiliations, the Freedom of Religion Act, 2019 was unanimously passed in the state assembly on 30 August.
The new law becomes more restrictive with harsher penalties for those who engage in conversions either directly or otherwise, by “use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, inducement or by fraudulent means”.
In the previous act sanctioned two to three years of imprisonment, while the new bill provides a jail term for up to seven years.
Some expressed resentment saying there was no need for a new bill as there was already the 2006 legislation which could be amended.
Archbishop Felix Machado of Vasai Diocese spoke to Vatican News lamenting the bill saying conversion is a free and conscientious act which should be restricted but respected.
He explained that for Christians, the Himachal Pradesh bill actually goes against freedom of religion. All human beings, he said, are born with the right to choose in conscience the religion of their choice. But the understanding in India is that all religions are good, and everyone born in a religion should not change it. Any conversion is coercion, they say.