The Dalai Lama criticised the overzealousness of Christian missionaries in Asia to convert members of other faiths. “In … India, US missionaries are using economic arguments to convert the poor mountain tribes…. You practise conversions like a kind of war against peoples and cultures.” – Rajesh Singh
A Bill against religious conversion by force, inducement or marriage, passed by the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly, could not have come at a more appropriate time. There had been reports of a rise in conversions in many parts of the Himalayan State, especially in Rampur and Kinnaur, and the State authorities had noticed that many of these had been done “voluntarily” only in name. In reality, they had happened under duress or through monetary rewards.
The notable feature is that the Bill received bipartisan support in the House. While the BJP government of Jai Ram Thakur piloted the legislation, the opposition supported it, making it possible for the Bill to be adopted by voice vote. One reason why the Bill got across the board support is that the issue of religious conversions through dubious means had angered and worried the people at large and they were seeking effective redressal to the crisis. Thus, it made political sense for the opposition parties in the Assembly to support the Bill. The other reason is that the anti-conversion legislation is not a first for the State. Before the new Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2019, came into being, there already existed the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006. The new Bill has many features in common with the old Act, except that the punishments have been made more stringent. This has been done because the government felt the earlier penal provisions had not been enough of a deterrence. The old Act provided for up to three years of jail in case of violation, whereas the new legislation enhances the punishment to seven years.
In fact, Chief Minister Thakur reminded the House that it had been a Congress Chief Minister, Virbhadra Singh, who had brought in a legislation to tackle forced conversions. While thanking him, the incumbent Chief Minister admitted that the 2006 Act had failed to effectively address the issue. Indeed, no case had even been registered against anyone under it, despite several instances of forced conversions having been reported. While the BJP government had the option to bring in amendments to the 2006 legislation, it felt that, given the number of amendments that in had in mind, it made sense to introduce a fresh Bill.
The new legislation effectively covers every form of inducement or force that goes into religious conversions. Thus, conversions through misrepresentation (for instance, religious clerics often run down other religions in order to establish the supremacy of their own to attract potential converts; the targeted ones are often told of non-existent benefits that could accrue to them in case they converted), marriage (when it is evident that the purpose of tying the nuptial knot was primarily to religiously convert one of the spouses), coercion (pressure from influential groups and physical threats), inducements (monetary or otherwise), have been banned. Such marriages would be declared null and void under Section 5 of the Bill.
The new Bill has sensibly retained one provision in the earlier Act—that anyone wishing to convert must give a month’s prior notice to the district magistrate and state that he/she was converting to another religion on his/her own free will. Not just that, even the priest who has been mandated to preside over the religious conversion ceremony, must give one month’s notice to the district authorities. These provisions do not apply to those who are seeking a return to their parent religion.
According to the Census 2011 data, there has been a significant rise in the Christian population in Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. The Church of North India (CNI) believes that the phenomenon in J&K can be attributed to the persecution its faith faces—“History is witness to the fact that Christianity multiplies whenever it faces persecution. It is a fact that Christians in J&K have entered persecution in the past in the form of violence and attacks in the churches there.” But the CNI is uncertain of the reasons for the increase in Christian population in Himachal Pradesh. Since there hasn’t been any prominent incident or recent precedent of persecution of Christians in the State, their increase can be explained to some extent to conversions.
The issue of religious conversions has for long been a contentious one in the country. Prominent figures liked Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama repeatedly voiced their opposition to the practice. The Mahatma said he found it difficult to reconcile to the idea because all religions are “equally true”. Yet, if somebody wanted to convert through genuine voluntariness, he was okay with it. Dalai Lama had told a Swiss weekly, “Above all, let us not try to convert one another.” Like the Mahatma, he held the belief that only when one is voluntarily prepared, one should take the plunge. He had criticised the overzealousness of Christian missionaries in Asia to convert members of other faiths. “In east India, US missionaries are using economic arguments to convert the poor mountain tribes…. You practise conversions like a kind of war against peoples and cultures.”
Perhaps the most authoritative account of religious conversions in India through various questionable means was highlighted in the seminal The Niyogi Committee Report on Christian Missionary Activities. The panel, headed by Bhawani Shankar Niyogi, had been formed by the Madhya Pradesh government to look into cases of forced conversions in the then undivided State, especially in the tribal regions, by Christian missionaries etc. The committee submitted its voluminous report to the government in 1956, largely confirming the fears that had been expressed among the people in general. It also compelled the authorities to take note of the findings and act accordingly.
There has for long been talk of national anti-conversion law but nothing has come out of it. Some states have their own legislation; besides, Himachal Pradesh, there is Odisha, for example. It is now being said that the Modi government could bring in a Bill soon to target forced conversions. We have to wait and see. – PGurus, 1 September 2019
› Rajesh Singh is a Delhi-based senior political commentator and public affairs analyst.