India's Karnataka state passes anti-conversion law despite opposition
By Vatican News staff reporter
Despite fierce opposition from Christians and opposition parties, a controversial new law cracking down on allegedly “illegal” religious conversions in Karnataka passed its final hurdle last week, when it was approved by the upper house of the local parliament, making Karnataka the tenth Indian state with anti-conversion laws.
The “Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill 2021” was introduced last year by the local leading pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It had already been approved by the state Legislative Assembly in December, but at the time didn’t have enough support from the Legislative Council, whose final sanction is necessary for any law to go into effect.
However, the measure was enforced in May this year by an ordinance signed by the local governor, Thawar Chand Gehlot, a senior member of BJP, a move challenged as unconstutional by the opposition and the Church. On September 15, the ruling nationalist party managed to muster enough votes in the upper house of the state to go ahead with the legislation.
Three to five-year imprisonment for illegal conversions
The new law prescribes imprisonment of three to five years along with heavy fines in case of conversion due to “force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means” or “by a promise of marriage.” According to its provisions, any person who is a "victim" of attempts of "forced conversion," his or her relatives, or even an acquaintance, can file a complaint.
The offence is considered so serious that it does not allow for release on bail. Anyone wanting to change religion will have to file a declaration before designated government authorities at least 30 days in advance, citing the reasons for the decision.
On the issue of interfaith marriages, the law further states that “any marriage which has happened with the sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice-versa by the man of one religion with the woman of another religion either by converting himself before or after marriage or by converting the woman before or after marriage shall be declared as null and void.”
Furthermore, in case of accusations of forced conversion, the law establishes that the burden of proof lies with the accused.
Concerns of the Christian community
Christians in Karnataka, who make up less than 2 percent of the state population, are among the strongest opponents to the new legislation, which they say, leaves space for arbitrariness, is vexasius and, in fact, targets social and educational activities promoted by the Church.
Their concerns have been repeatedly voiced by Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore, head of the Karnataka Bishops' Conference, who, before the signing of the ordinance in May, handed the Karnataka governor a memorandum listing the reasons for religious minorities' opposition to the legislation. He subsequently challenged the ordinance in the state’s high court.
In a statement released after the approval of the bill into law by the Legislative Council, the Archdioces of Bangalore said the Bishops of Karnataka, all Christian leaders and “others who uphold the secular fabric of our democratic society” will take a decision “to find a legal recourse and challenge the Act in its totality”, reiterating that its content remains “bitter, brutal and abrasive”.
For its part, the local government maintains that the legislation will only protect people from forced conversions, arguing that they are becoming more and more frequent.
Anti-conversion laws in other Indian States
The first Indian State to adopt an anti-conversion law was Orissa back in 1968, followed by Madhya Pradesh in the same year and Arunachal Pradesh in 1978.
But the number of states introducing these restrictive measures has increased significantly in the 2000s with the rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, which has become the country's dominant party and has ruled India uninterruptedly since 2014.
Growing intolerance against Christians and other minorities
Laws criminalizing religious conversions have also been introduced in Chhattisgarh (2000), Gujarat (2003), Himachal Pradesh (2006), Jharkhand (2017), Uttarakhand (2018), and Uttar Pradesh (2020), amid growing intolerance against religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims, who have been repeatedly attacked under the pretext of illegally converting poor people from Hinduism.
Main source: Uca News