MUMBAI, India – Archbishop Peter Machado says a new anti-conversion law in the Indian state of Karnataka could “become a tool for the fringe elements to take law into their own hands.”
The law – called the Protection of Religious Freedom Bill – was approved by the state governor earlier this week.
Machado is the archbishop of Bangalore and president of the Karnataka Region Catholic Bishops’ Council. Karnataka is located in southwest India.
He noted that despite the rhetoric of Hindu nationalists, the small Christian community in India is actually shrinking as a proportion of the population: According to census data, the percentage of the Christian population in the country in 2001 was 2.34 percent and declined to 2.30 percent in the 2011 census.
The same trend was seen in Karnataka, where the 2001 census showed a Christian population of 1.91 percent, which fell to 1.87 percent in 2011.
However, Hindu nationalists have been stoking fears over “illegal conversion” for years, and claim Christian groups use their social services – church organizations are overrepresented compared to their percentage of the population in the educational, health, and charitable sectors in India – to illicitly convert Hindus, especially those belonging to the marginalized lower castes.
“It is indeed a matter of great concern that the anti-conversion bill would become a tool for the fringe elements to take law into their own hands, and vitiate the atmosphere with provocations, false accusations, communal unrest in the otherwise peaceful state of Karnataka,” Machado said.
“If there were rampant conversions, as claimed by some, the Christian population, both in state and nation, would have seen a considerable increase in numbers. But the facts and figures indicate that a lot of hue and cry over religious conversion is unrealistically magnified and grossly exaggerated,” the archbishop added.
Karnataka is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India since 2014. The BJP is linked with the the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.
Last year, BJP assemblyman Goolihatti Shekhar claimed that religious conversions “by force or through inducement” were “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 reported that they did it out of their own willingness and conviction.
Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using force and surreptitious tactics in pursuing conversions, often storming into villages and leading “reconversion” ceremonies in which Christians are compelled to perform Hindu rituals.
These pressures on Christians, which also affect Muslims and other religious minorities, are part of what observers describe as a broad program for the “saffronization” of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meaning an attempt to impose Hindu values and identity while squeezing out rival faiths.
Machado noted that the church is a good citizen in India, and contributes to the development of the country.
“It is a well-known fact that thousands of schools, colleges and hospitals are run and managed by the Christian community across the state and country as well,” he said.
He also said that there were no cases of “forced conversions” reported in Karnataka, and the law was therefore unnecessary.
“May we reiterate the point that not a single incident of forced conversion has been reported so far. Then, where is the complaint coming from and what is the motive behind such false and fabricated news? Let the government prove whether any one of them has ever been influenced, compelled or coerced to change his or her religion,” the archbishop said.