BJP powered Jharkhand cabinet approves anti-conversion bill; to be introduced in state Assembly this month

As and when the bill is passed, the act is likely to intensify the confrontation between the BJP and its allied organisations and the Church. They have openly been at loggerheads ever since the proposed tenancy act amendments were introduced through a bill last year.

The Raghubar Das cabinet on Tuesday approved an anti-conversion bill, called the Religious Freedom Bill, 2017, which forbids conversion through allurement or coercion. According to its provisions, a minimum jail term of three years and/or a fine of Rs 50,000, or both, will be imposed on persons found guilty of converting people. In the case of a minor girl belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe being converted, the punishment will extend to four years in prison and/or Rs 1 lakh as fine, or both. The bill will be introduced during the monsoon session of the state Assembly, set to start later this month.
As and when the bill is passed, the act is likely to intensify the confrontation between the BJP and its allied organisations and the Church. They have openly been at loggerheads ever since the proposed tenancy act amendments were introduced through a bill last year. However, the government was forced to re-consider it after it was returned by the Governor, without assent. The BJP had then openly alleged that the Church was behind the protests organised across the state, which created a negative atmosphere with respect to the proposed changes. The Church too had come out openly petitioning the Governor against the proposed amendments.
In a cabinet meeting held on Tuesday evening, the cabinet approved the draft bill. Section 3 of the Bill provides for punitive action against conversion using coercion or allurement. In the case of a minor, belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, being converted, the punishment will increase from three years to four years and/or the fine would be up from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh, said an official, following the meeting.
In the case of those converting willingly, the district administration will have to be informed regarding the details of the conversion, and the time, place, reason etc, or face action. Some of the other states where such legislations have been brought into effect include Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
The BJP has been constantly demanding that the state ought to have an anti-conversion bill. The demand for the same was raised in the state executive committee meeting in Palamu nearly six months ago. Chief Minister Raghubar Das had asked the officials to study the legislations available and come up with a draft on the matter.
Welcoming the move immediately, state general secretary Deepak Prakash said: “Either through coercion or allurement, the gullible tribal people have been converted on a large scale. As a result, their society has got detached from its own roots and traditions. It is a good step to stop such forces, who are involved in it.”
State BJP spokesperson Pratul Shahdev said: “Forces out to disintegrate the society have been indulging in conversions over a long time. It is good that the Bill envisages tougher punishment for those involved in converting the members of the SC/ST community.” He added that even Mahatma Gandhi was not in favour of allowing conversion through allurement or coercion.
The office of the Archbishop, Ranchi, refused to comment on the development, saying they have not gone into the details of it yet. However, sources claimed that, as and when it is passed, the right wing organisations themselves would be in trouble, as they have been trying to portray the Sarna followers (who follow their own traditional religion) as Hindus.
Welcoming the development, a member of the Sarna committee said that this was among one of their major demands. “We had petitioned the government for this. We welcome it, but we also need to study it,” he said. Along with the anti-conversion bill, the Sarna followers have also been demanding a separate “religion code” for them so that they could be enumerated as a separate faith. and not bracketed under “Other Religions”.
Sarnas have also been objecting to the “dual benefit” availed by tribal Christians, who get the benefits of being a minority community member and also use tribal identity to get benefits on that count too.
Alleged conversion by the Church and its functionaries, either through coercion or allurement, has been a major plank for the BJP and its allied right wing organisations. However, the Christian bodies have been alleging that the right wing organisations too have been trying to bring the tribals, who are not Hindus, within the fold of Hinduism.While there are numerous such incidents that come to light each year, there is very little evidence to show that Christians have engaged in coercive practices to gain new converts. Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, noted in her report on India in 2011 that:

‘Even in the Indian states which have adopted laws on religious conversion there seem to be only few—if any—convictions for conversion by the use of force, inducement, or fraudulent means. In Orissa, for example, not a single infringement over the past ten years of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967 could be cited or adduced by district officials and senior officials in the State Secretariat.’[6]

In spite of the absence of credible data to support laws restricting religious conversions in India, there are voices within the government which have called for a national law.[7] In April 2015, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh of the BJP called[8] for a national level anti-conversion law in response to reports of coercive reconversions to Hinduism and various attacks against members of religious communities.[9]

Legal restrictions

Similar laws have been enacted at the state or province level in Odisha (previously known as Orissa) in 1967, Madhya Pradesh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Gujarat (2003), and Himachal Pradesh (2006). Euphemistically titled ‘Freedom of Religion Act’, they are commonly known as anti-conversions laws:

In 2002, the Tamil Nadu state assembly passed the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Bill, which was repealed in 2004 after the defeat of the BJP-led coalition.
In 2006, the BJP-led government in Rajasthan passed a similar freedom of religion bill. However, assent of the President of India is still pending ten years after the bill was forwarded to him.
The BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh also unsuccessfully sought to tighten existing laws the same year.