MUMBAI, India – Christians in the south India state of Karnataka are calling on the state Legislative Assembly to reject a proposed Anti-Conversion Bill.
The bill is scheduled to be tabled in the next session of the Legislative Assembly which begins December 13.
Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore, the head of the All Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights, called the bill “dangerous.”
“The Anti-Conversion Bill is primarily targeted against the minorities. All minorities and secular sections will have to raise a united voice against this,” he said in a statement.
Karnataka is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has also ruled India since 2014. The BJP is linked with the the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.
Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using force and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions, and such “illegal conversions” can be punished with fines and jail time.
Earlier this year, BJP assemblyman Goolihatti Shekhar claimed that religious conversions “by force or through inducement” and was “rampant” across the state, with 15,000 to 20,000 people, including his own mother, converting to Christianity in his constituency.
An investigation into the allegations stated there were no “forced conversions” in his district, and all the converts spoken to did it out of their own willingness and conviction.
“If there were rampant conversions, as claimed by [Shekhar] and others, the Christian population should, both in state and nation, should have seen an increase. But the facts and figures indicate that orchestrated hue and cry over religious conversion is nothing but a futile exaggeration,” Machado said.
He noted that according to government’s own census data, the percentage of Christian population in India in 2001 was 2.34 percent, but in 2011 it had dropped to 2.30 percent. A similar decrease was noted in Karnataka, where the percentage dropped from 1.91 percent to 1.87 percent.
Machado also said the implementation of anti-conversion laws in other Indian states has led to increased persecution and harassment of the Christian community.
“The first Anti-Conversion Law was passed in Orissa [now Odisha] in 1967. The attacks on the Christians began from [the 1970s] onwards, culminating in the Kandhamal genocide in 2007 and 2008. The law gave a justification for the attacks on the Christians,” the archbishop said.
Kandhamal is a district of Odisha where an orgy of violence descended upon the impoverished Christian minority in August 2008.
A series of riots led by radical Hindus left over 100 people dead, thousands injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, and 50,000 people displaced, many forced to hide in nearby forests where more died of hunger and the elements.
“After Odisha, the Anti-Conversion Law was passed in 6 other states in India. Not much resistance was put up against such an undemocratic law. As a result, the attacks on the Christians increased in all these states,” Machado said. “Today, there is enough documentation to show that persecution of Christians is taking place in every state and every union territory in India. The proposed law will only make the situation worse.”
In his statement, Machado said the issue of forced conversion “is a highly exaggerated subject,” and implied hypocrisy on the part of many of the politicians pushing anti-conversion laws.
“Many of our BJP leaders have studied in Christian schools and they have also chosen Christian hospitals for the medical treatment. None of them were forcefully converted,” he noted.
The archbishop also pointed out the laws are never used against Hindus, including during Kandhamal riots, when Hindu nationalists “plac[ed] axes on the necks of the Adivasi Christians and Dalit Christians” and forcefully converted them to Hinduism.
“The culprits are not punished despite the Anti-Conversion Law [in Odisha]. All the victims still go to church and believe in their own original faith, despite the use of force in 2008. Faith is something that is deeply personal [and] cannot be forced,” he said.
Machado also said anti-conversion laws violate the “basic foundations of the Indian constitution,” which guarantees freedom of religion.
“The Anti-Conversion Law is a shame on the secular principles outlined by the Indian Constitution. All secular sections should raise their voice united on this dangerous law. It is better to foresee communal violence before it really takes place,” he said.
“In case when there is a case of forced conversion taking place, the present law under the Indian Constitution is more than sufficient to deal with such situations. There is no need for any additional law,” the archbishop continued.
“The entire Christian Community in Karnataka opposes the proposal of Anti-Conversion Bill in one voice and questions the need for such an exercise when sufficient laws and court directives are in place to monitor any aberration of the existing laws,” Machado said.