MUMBAI, India – Another state in India is preparing to pass an anti-conversion law, as minorities accuse the Hindu-nationalist government of discriminating against non-Hindus.
Jharkhand is in eastern India, and less than 5 percent of its population is Christian. However, over a quarter of the population is considered tribal, and Christians make up nearly 15 percent of the state’s tribal population.
According to the proposed law, which passed in the cabinet on August 1, anyone converting someone to a different religion through “force or allurement” could face three years in jail.
The law is likely to be debated in parliament beginning on August 8.
Jharkhand, like India’s national government, is ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.
Since it took over the national government in 2014, religious minorities have complained about increased harassment.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom named India a “Tier 2” country of concern in its 2017 report.
“While Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke publicly about the importance of communal tolerance and religious freedom, members of the ruling party have ties to Hindu nationalist groups implicated in religious freedom violations, used religiously divisive language to inflame tensions, and called for additional laws that would restrict religious freedom,” the report reads. “These issues, combined with longstanding problems of police and judicial bias and inadequacies, have created a pervasive climate of impunity in which religious minorities feel increasingly insecure and have no recourse when religiously motivated crimes occur.”
Currently, six states in India have anti-conversion laws – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Himachal Pradesh – despite the fact India’s national constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
The BJP has claimed the tribal population of Jharkhand – which has traditionally been marginalized in the state – has been targeted by missionaries, since the Christian percentage of the tribal people has risen by nearly 30 percent since the previous census.
Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, the archbishop of the state’s capital Ranchi, told Crux the bill was not necessary, because “forced conversion” does not take place.
“We are a free people with a free will, and a free conscience, and free intelligence,” the cardinal said. “No one can force anyone to convert.”
Toppo himself is a member of the tribal community.
“Over the decades, we have been running many schools and colleges, healthcare facilities and hospitals all over the state, serving the poor, the downtrodden and the forgotten. None of the millions of people whom we have served have been converted to Christianity,” the cardinal told local media.
Jesuit Father Xavier Soreng told UCANews the actions of the government were “an attempt to whip up anti-Christian sentiments in the state as Christians have always been accused of religious conversion.”
Soreng, a professor at the Xavier Institute of Social Services, said Christians have “immensely contributed” to the state in areas such as health and education “but now unfortunately our services are used against us.”
The BJP-led state government in Jharkhand has often clashed with Christian organizations. It has claimed 106 Christian affiliate NGOs are misusing government money for religious conversion, and claimed it is trying to protect the heritage and culture of “gullible” tribal populations.
Last year the government accused Christian groups of being behind protests which derailed a land tenancy law being pushed by the government, which was strongly opposed by many tribal advocacy groups.
Incidents of harassment against Christians have increased over the past few months across India, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized.
More recently, a spate of killings related to “cow vigilantism” have happened around the country. The slaughter of cows – which are sacred in Hinduism – is illegal in most parts of India, although beef is often eaten by some Dalits (low-caste Hindus previously called “untouchables”) and members of some religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians.
Members of “cow vigilante” groups often attack people accused of slaughtering cows, and several people – predominantly Muslims – have been killed over the past year.
Last month, the Catholic bishops in India hosted a group of spiritual leaders and intellectuals to discuss fears the country’s secular nature might be at risk.
The participants called upon the government to end the sense of impunity which was creating an atmosphere of fear in the country, and said recent developments “threatened not just secularism, but the Constitution and the democratic fabric of the country.”
In June, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai had said the intention of Pope Francis to visit India might have to be postponed because it was taking longer than anticipated to work out details with the government.
The pope had mentioned the possibility of a trip to India and Bangladesh this fall in October 2016, during his in-flight press conference on the return trip from Azerbaijan. He again mentioned the proposed visit in March of this year in an interview with the German newsweekly Die Zeit.
Although not confirmed by the Vatican, it has been reported Francis will instead visit Myanmar and Bangladesh in November.