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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 15, April 4, 2015

Modi Government builds Tempo for National Law Banning Conversions to Christianity

Sunday 5 April 2015, by John Dayal

The Indian Government sees an absolute ban on conversions to Christianity as the only way they can control Hindu religious nationalist elements from attacking nuns, clergy and churches, big and small, from the forests of Central India to the national Capital, New Delhi. And going by statements made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s senior Ministers, the first contours of such a law may soon become apparent. Civil rights groups have recorded 168 incidents of targeted violence against the Christian community in the 300 days Modi has been in power.

The discourse is already heating up to a fever pitch as Modi prepares his party for the State Legislative Assembly elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where his Bharatiya Janata Party, hopes to wrest power. These are among the biggest States in the Union of India, and the only ones in the so-called ‘cow belt’ of the Gangetic plains where the party does not control the provincial governments.

 The BJP had repeatedly promised such a law made to their core constituency in their successful campaign in the general elections of 2014. This was reviving an unfulfilled dream that dates back to 1978 when O.P. Tyagi of the then unified Janata Party moved a Private Member’s draft legislation, ironically called the Freedom of Religion Bill, in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament. Although the Bill did not mention any religion by name, it was directed at Christianity.

Despite the support it had from Morarji Desai, the Prime Minister, the Bill fell through as the government collapsed when the socialist members objected to the “dual membership” that several Ministers and party-men had in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. Atal Behari Vajpayee, Desai’s Minister for External Affairs, and L. K. Advani, the Information Minister, were members of the RSS, and then formed the BJP.

 In 1999, Vajpayee, the then Prime Minister, revived the debate on the Bill when more than two dozen small churches were destroyed, allegedly by Sangh cadres, in Gujarat’s Dangs region on the eve of Christmas 1998. Vajpayee had visited Dangs to see the damage, and apparently felt the Christian community had brought it upon itself by its work in the area. Vajpayee was challenged by the late Catholic Bishops Conference President, Alan De Lastic, the Archbishop of Delhi, who reminded the Prime Minister that the debate on propagation of religion was effectively settled in the Constituent Assembly.

 The RSS, and even local Gandhians, were keen to have a law against conversions. Vajpayee did not have the strength to bring a national law. But the Gujarat State Government under Chief Minister Narendra Modi later passed a Freedom of Religion Act criminalising conversions traced to force or fraud. Such laws had been enforced earlier in Arunachal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and later by Himachal Pradesh, prescribing stiff punishment for those found guilty. Tamil Nadu too passed the law, but the Chief Minister, Ms J. Jayalalithaa, soon withdrew it bowing to a major protest by the Christian community which had a political clout in districts in the State.

 These provincial laws have survived Christian challenge in the High Courts, most recently in Himachal Pradesh, and in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has upheld such laws to be valid, maintaining that while citizens had the freedom to chose, or change, their faith, the constitutional right to propagate religion did not mean the right to “convert another person to one’s own religion”. Clergy, then, does not have the right to convert anyone.

In between its campaigns warning that Muslims will overwhelm the “Hindu nation”, the RSS has maintained its pitch demanding that there be a national law to curb the growth in the Christian population which, it says, has been brought about by uncontrolled proselytisation by Western evangelical groups and politically powerful Catholics in the Congress party.

 A national law will require an amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees Freedom of Faith. The government is in no position to do so with its minority presence in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House, where it was recently embarrassed when the Opposition forced an amendment to the Address of the President of India to the joint session of Parliament.

 The Prime Minister, even as he praises the social work of the Christian community, darkly hints at the culpability of religious minorities in communal discord. His Ministers are more forthright. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu, Finance Minister Arun Jaitely and other junior Ministers have repeatedly spoken of the urgent need to have a national law against conversions to check the violence against the Christian community.

 The most direct so far has been the Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, who said a few days ago that while he had no issues with the pace of growth of the Muslim population, he wanted an anti-conversion law. “It does not matter how many Muslims are there. If their population is increasing, let it increase. We have no issues. But the cycle of conversions must stop,” Singh told a Conference of the State Minority Commissions in Delhi. Without naming her, he revived the RSS fulminations against Mother Teresa’s work as being motivated by her zeal to convert people to Christianity. “Why do we do conversions? If we want to do service, let us do service. But should service be done for the purpose of religious conversion? Do not do this (conversions). Leave it.” He feels, as does his party, that conversions will change the demography of India, and therefore make it lose its cultural Hindu identity.

 While President Pranab Mukherjee has decried violence against religious minorities, he has not spoken on this issue. It has been left to Vice President Hamid Ansari to caution against such State meddling any more in religion. More than once, the Vice President has stressed the freedom to change one’s religion or belief is a fundamental right, and asserted that no religion should be given an “official status”. But his is a lonely voice.

 The religious minorities have not really been able to forge a united movement against such laws in the States, and it has been left to the Christians to seek recourse in the courts. The Sikh community, despite the violence unleashed against it during a period of insurrectionist terrorism in the 1970s and the 1980s, has not been impacted. While it attracts many Hindus to its fold, it does not actively seek converts. Muslims in India have not been accused of any magnitude of conversions, other than being repeatedly accused of increasing their population by large and polygamous families.

 Among Christians, prelates of some of the Syrian denominations in Kerala have often said their churches have not been involved in proselytisation, blaming it on evangelical groups.

 But increasingly in recent years, human rights and freedom of faith activists within the Christian community, and in civil society, have felt that the fundamental constitutional right of freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion, circumscribed only by issues of law and order and health, has to be defended to prevent a further erosion of civil liberties which could alter the basic character of Indian democracy.

 India is, at present, perhaps the only real multi-religious and multi-cultural country in Asia. Its neighbouring countries are either theocracies or democracies where the majority religion, linked with ethnicity, is overwhelmingly powerful, as in Sri Lanka which has only recently emerged from a three-decade-long civil war.

The author is a senior journalist, human rights activist and member of the National Integration Council.