Anti-Conversion Bill Expected in Rajasthan State, India

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

BJP-ruled government to keep strict vigil on churches.

by Vishal Arora

NEW DELHI, September 12 (Compass) -- The state government of Rajasthan, ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), plans to present an anti-conversion bill to the state assembly during its next session, beginning on September 26.

The state government will also keep a “strict vigil” on the activities of churches, particularly those in a newly-formed Catholic diocese in Jaipur, the state capital.

Pope Benedict XVI split Jaipur diocese from the Ajmer-Jaipur diocese in July. The new diocese encompasses 12 districts with a total population of about 25 million, of which only 4,000 are Catholics.

Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria told Compass that the anti-conversion bill resembles laws already in place in several other Indian states. If the bill becomes law, any person wishing to convert and any religious official involved must inform district officials before a conversion takes place. Failure to meet this requirement will lead to imprisonment and/or a stiff fine.

There will also be penalties for anyone found guilty of attempting to convert someone forcefully or fraudulently.

Anti-conversion laws are in force in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, and Arunachal Pradesh states. Gujarat state passed a similar law in March 2003, but the law has not been enforced because the government has not yet formulated rules under the Act.

“Wherever Christian missionaries go, they convert people of other faiths,” Madan Dilawar, state social welfare minister and a member of the World Hindu Council (VHP), told Compass. “Since we are in Rajasthan, where a considerable part of the population are adivasis (members of tribal groups), who are the target of missionaries, we will keep strict watch over all churches.”

Dilawar added, “We will not allow Christian missionaries to indulge in anti-social activities.”

Referring to the establishment of the new Jaipur Catholic diocese, Dilawar said at a press conference on August 31, “These [new] churches are generally meant for religious conversions by luring people through money or pressure.”

Dilawar said it was the “duty” of the government to constantly monitor church activity, according to the Press Trust of India. He also said vigilance would be intensified if any act of religious conversion was reported in the state.

Dilawar insisted that VHP “homecoming” programs that encouraged Christians to “reconvert” to Hinduism were simply “a return of the people to their original religion,” despite clear evidence that many tribal Christians were initially animist and not Hindu.

Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholics Bishop Conference of India, said the government’s move to introduce anti-conversion legislation was “totally misguided and unwarranted.”

“There is no authentic or proven case of coercion or forced conversion in the state,” Joseph told Compass. “Only a miniscule of the tribal population of Rajasthan has joined the Christian faith.”

Christians have long provided selfless service to marginalized people in isolated areas of the state, Joseph said. “Besides,” he added, “the Christian community is known as a law-abiding community.”

Anti-conversion laws curb freedom to choose religion as guaranteed in India’s Constitution, he added. “It is a matter of concern to all citizens who believe in religious freedom.”

The Rajasthan government first announced its plan to adopt anti-conversion legislation on February 23. (See Compass Direct, “Hindu Extremists in India Assault Rajasthan Christians,” March 18, 2005.)

The announcement came four days after Hindu extremists violently attacked Bible students of the Emmanuel Mission in Kota district on February 19. State support of the attackers was clearly visible. (See Compass Direct, “Indian Hindus Attack Christian Students in Rajasthan,” February 22, 2005.)

Copyright 2005 Compass Direct