How India’s ‘anti-conversion laws’ have been politicized to persecute religious minorities – LifeSite

Help Christians who escaped Gaza: LifeFunder

(LifeSiteNews) — Since its independence in 1947, India has been officially a secular state, with Article 25 (1) of the Indian Constitution, declaring:

Subject to public order, morality, and health and to the other provisions of this part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice, and propagate religion.

However, since the hardline Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, religious minorities in Hindu-majority India have faced persecution in a variety of forms, including forced conversions or reconversions to Hinduism. As the BJP has considerable ties to Hindutva, the ideology that claims Indian identity is linked to Hinduism, religious minorities like Christians have had to face resistance and discrimination on account of their religion.

Priya Sharma (name changed for security reasons), a local partner with Open Doors, a non-governmental organization that aids persecuted Christians, testified that since 2014, “attacks against Christians have been very systematic and have only increased. Pastors are imprisoned on false charges, churches are closed, and there is forced reconversion to Hinduism.”

To make matters more complicated, the presence of anti-conversion laws, first set in place to stop the conversion of people away from Hinduism through “misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by fraudulent means,” have been politicized by the ruling BJP and their allies as “a tool of persecution by those who are genuinely opposed to religious tolerance… by creating further polarization and generating an atmosphere of fear among religious minorities,” according to an August 2023 letter addressed to the Indian government written by the United Nations Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Nazila Ghanea, and the UN Rapporteur for Minority Issues, Fernand de Varennes.

As of November 2023, such anti-conversion laws were in force in 12 of India’s 28 states, namely, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh. Although the phrasing of the law in each state differs, they typically stipulate that “no person should convert or attempt to convert, either directly or indirectly, any person from one religion to another by use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means.”

Based on a report by U.K.-based group Release International, strict anti-conversion laws in various Indian states have led to “the arrests of hundreds of Christians.” Release International then cautioned about how “the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in India increases dramatically with each passing month.”

A December 2023 article by UCA News described how almost 400 Christians have been detained under Uttar Pradesh’s anti-conversion laws since the laws were passed nearly three years ago.

“This data is from Nov. 27, 2020, to Nov. 27, 2023,” a Church leader who wished to remain anonymous told UCA News. The same article added:

Among the 398 people arrested so far, a majority are Protestant pastors and followers of neo-Christian groups. Those jailed include 318 males and 80 females, besides a Catholic priest.

The anti-conversion law was first implemented in the state as an ordinance in 2020 and adopted under the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act 2021.

Christian leaders have decried the law for functioning as a tool of hardline Hindu groups “to target and trap Christians.”

“Our people are being jailed on totally false cases of religious conversion,” Minakshi Singh, general secretary of Unity in Compassion, an organization based in New Delhi helping Christians seek bail, told UCA News.

“The very basis of this draconian anti-conversion law is against the basic tenets and spirit of the Indian constitution,” Singh added.

Occasionally, hardline Hindu nationalists have abused these laws to target Christians and other religious minorities in order to prevent them from worshiping or gathering together. Based on these hardline Hindu nationalists, a Christian or Muslim Indian is not a “true Indian.”

Thus, hardline Hindu nationalist have abused anti-conversion laws to accuse (usually falsely) those with a Hindu background who have sincerely become Christians out of their own volition, as well as falsely slam Catholic/Protestant prelates for allegedly forcing people to convert from Hinduism to Christianity.

As per the UN letter above, there were “several reports of prayer meetings, religious services being interrupted by angry mobs accusing the worshippers to be involved in forced religious conversions have been recorded. These cases contribute to creating an atmosphere of fear for religious minorities and a climate of impunity for vigilantes who feel entitled to disrupt peaceful religious services, intimidate and use violence without repercussions.” Notably, the same UN letter alluded to a study conducted by the Indian advocacy group Article 14, which examined 101 police reports filed in Uttar Pradesh and discovered that most of the reports were premised on complaints lodged by “Hindutva outfits using the law to harass Christians.”

As per an Article 14 report dated October 11, 2023, more than half of all first information reports (FIRs) alleging forced conversion to Christianity in Uttar Pradesh (UP) have no legal standing and should never have been registered by the police.”

Furthermore, the same Article 14 report elaborated that “sixty-two percent of FIRs (63 of 101) alleging such conversion to Christianity are registered in response to complaints by third parties (other than the accused or victim), including Hindutva outfits, such as Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).”

The aforesaid UN letter also presented other issues of concern, including the ambiguous phrasing of the anti-conversion laws, with words such as “misrepresentation” and “allurement” subject to a wide range of possible interpretations by Indian authorities and prosecutors. Open Doors has stated how some cases could not hold water once they went to court, as they tend to fall flat because accusers could not substantiate their charges with proofs. The NGO then cited an example when a court in Uttar Pradesh decreed in 2023 that a pastor and his wife was not guilty of a crime under state anti-conversion laws for disseminating Bibles.

Hearing their appeal, the judge ruled:

Providing teaching, distributing Holy Bible books, encouraging children for getting education, organizing assembly of villagers and performing Bhandara, instructing the villagers not to enter into altercation and not to take liquor do not amount to allurement under the 2021 Act.

Nonetheless, while defendants may not be ultimately convicted, the very experience of being accused and charged in court could cause huge trauma and disruption to their lives, lamented Open Doors.

In response to the anti-conversion laws, Lisa Gentile, Senior Advocacy Officer for Open Doors International, declared:

These laws are completely unnecessary. They are being used by Hindu nationalist supporters to settle personal scores and promote their own agenda. And to roll them out any further would cause further fear and misery.

As anti-conversion laws presently exist in India at the state level only, there have been calls by Hindu nationalists for a nationwide anti-conversion law, prompting worries that the BJP might turn secular India into a Hindu nationalist state.

Fortunately, during a May 16 hearing regarding the anti-conversion law in Uttar Pradesh, the Indian Supreme Court remarked that the law could breach the Indian Constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion, noting that “some parts [of the law] may seem to be violative of the fundamental right to religion guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution.”

Following the Supreme Court’s comments, Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore in southern Karnataka state told Catholic News Agency (CNA):

This Supreme Court observation gives us great hope. The court observation highlights the primacy of the fundamental right of freedom of conscience. We do not support or indulge in fraudulent conversions. But the law should not be used to persecute us and deny our fundamental right.

Likewise, A.C. Michael, a Catholic and coordinator of the ecumenical United Christian Forum (UCF), expressed his relief to CNA:

The Supreme Court remark is a pleasant surprise and gives hope to us.

Strikingly, the UCF has been keeping a close tab on incidents of anti-Christian violence and offering support to persecuted Christians, most of whom were arrested on false conversion charges, CNA reported.

Adding, Michael said that of the 731 cases of incidents of atrocities the UCF documented in “more than half of them are questionable arrests under FORA [Freedom of Religious Acts],” stating that Uttar Pradesh recorded 301 of 731 incidents of anti-Christian persecution in 2023.

Help Christians who escaped Gaza: LifeFunder

Previous ArticleNext Article