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Anti-conversion laws: rethinking violence against Christians in India

On 12 August, the Jharkhand state assembly passed the Religious Freedom Bill 2017 (also known as the Jharkhand Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam).  The Bill now awaits the approval of the Jharkhand governor and subsequently, the President of India for assent. If it does, Jharkhand will join Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh as states which have active anti-conversion laws. Arunachal Pradesh despite passing the legislation awaits the framing of its rules for the enactment of the law. The Rajasthan Bill passed the legislature ten years ago but still awaits assent from the President of India. The Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act 2002 was repealed in 2014 due to pressure from minority groups.

Much has already been written about the Bill’s tremendous implications for the state of Jharkhand, and larger implications for the country. But the most interesting issue in the light of these bills is that of violence and how these ‘ironically-titled’ ‘Freedom of Religion’ laws area a form of violence against Christians in India.

The rise of physical violence against Christians in India began its proliferation in the late 1990s. Between 1964 and 1996, there were only 38 registered cases of violence against Christians in India. However, the following year the United Christian Forum reported 27 cases and 70 in 1998. This number has steadily increased over the years. In a detailed study encompassing 2007 and 2008, Chad Bauman estimates that these attacks had exceeded 200 per year based on data he collected. This violence involved encompassed beatings, damage to property, and intimidations. The Evangelical Fellowship of India estimated that there were 155 instances of violence in 2015.

While the rise in physical violence is abhorrent, my view is that this is a limited way of looking at violence. Political Scientist, Johan Galtung defines violence as “the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is.” If we (and we should) agree with this definition then we should look at violence as anything that prohibits an individual from attaining their maximum potential (all the rights promised under international and national law).

With specific reference to this Bill, the right I refer to is Article 25 of the Indian Constitution which says that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion”. This was reaffirmed in International law in Article 18 (1) of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which provides for the

right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

While I agree that forced conversions are not compliant with the provision in these instruments and should be punishable, it appears that this legislation (much like other variatios of Freedom of Religion bills) is more directed to Christian missionary activities rather than forced conversions. The anti-Christian nature of this Bill is evident in the words of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief whip Radha Krishna Kishore who said “In 2001, Christian population (in Jharkhand) was 10,93,380. In 2011 census, this was 14,18,608 — an increase of around 30 percent,” he said. “And who are the people being converted? The poor, the Dalit and the tribal population living in interior areas.” This notion is reaffirmed with higher penalties given if the person converted is a minor, woman or a member of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribe than for others.

The words force, fraud, and inducement are present in all the states’ bills; however, their meaning is ambiguous. Can the access to missionary-run education and healthcare be considered “allurement”? In the Jharkhand legislation, the term “force” also includes the “threat of divine displeasure”. Does the Christian belief in going to heaven for living a good Christian life count as force? Rationalist would argue that anything to do with religion would be considered “fraud” or misrepresentation.

Therefore, if these laws are viewed as a limit on a Christian’s ability to practice, propagate and promote a religion and this infringes on his/her rights, then we must subsequently also view these Freedom of Religion Laws as a form of violence that Christians experience in India in addition to the increased instances of physical violence. After all, both prevent Christians from attaining the full enjoyment of their rights and both cause a high degree of harm to the individual.