MUMBAI, India – A Catholic bishop says he is “more than disappointed” with changes to the anti-conversion law in Himachal Pradesh, a state in northern India.
The new legislation was passed on Friday, and amends the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019, which came into force less than two years ago. Despite its name, the act is aimed at keeping Hindus from changing religion.
The amendment forbids a convert to Christianity from benefitting from any privilege attached to his family’s caste – lower caste Hindus benefit from quotas in education and state employment – and increases the maximum punishment for “forced conversion” to ten years imprisonment. The amendment also defines the conversion of more than one person in a single ceremony as a “mass conversion,” despite the fact that Catholics and other liturgical Christians often perform baptisms for all converts at the Easter vigil.
In addition, any “marriage for the sole purpose of conversion is declared null and void” under the legislation. Finally, anyone seeking to convert to another religion as well as those performing the conversion must give a month’s notice to a local government magistrate.
“I was more than disappointed and so are people of other faiths,” said Bishop Ignatius Loyola Mascarenhas of Shimla–Chandigarh.
“On reading this I have to say this: Anybody who converts to Christianity is doing so from a strong unflinching personal following of Jesus Christ and very much as a personal conscious decision of divine attraction to Jesus Christ, God’s love, compassion, forgiveness justice and truth. His death we celebrate in love, His Resurrection from the dead we profess with living faith, His coming in glory we await with unwavering hope. This personal experience makes them embrace Christianity,” the bishop told Crux.
“I forcefully reiterate that no external pressure, manipulation or force or allurements, influence, coercion, any fraudulent means or marriage can bring about real conversion of heart. And if this is taking place, then we can have recourse to the laws that already exist for such types of conversion – let the law take its course,” Mascarenhas said.
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 Indian sectors of education, health, and charity – to illicitly convert Hindus, especially those belonging to the marginalized lower castes.
The state of Himachal Pradesh 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.
The northern state is overwhelmingly Hindu: Adherents of the religion make up over 95 percent of the 6.8 million people. Christians only comprise 0.18 percent of Himachal Pradesh’s population, compared to 2.3 percent in the whole of India.
Mascarenhas noted the law was passed as India marked its 75th anniversary of independence.
“The 75th Independence Day celebrations were celebrated with unprecedented enthusiasm countrywide. Rightly so. But then we are also reminded of the huge processes and series of debates undertaken by the Constituent Assembly and the framers of our Constitution with secularism being the central plank of the debates. Sadly, this spirit of thought process is conspicuously missing,” he said, referring to the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom in India’s constitution.
Despite these guarantees, several Indian states ruled by the BJP have passed stringent anti-conversion laws, usually targeting Christians and Muslims.