Karnataka state’s Legislative Assembly (its lower house) passed the Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill 2021 on 23 December 2021, amid widespread protests by many Indians including Christians and opposition politicians. The bill should then have been heard by Karnataka’s Legislative Council (its upper house, which must approve any new law) but Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai called on Governor Thaawar Chand Gehlot to sign the bill into effect without waiting for the assent of the Legislative Council, and he did so on 17 May.
Karnataka’s government is led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but the BJP is one short of a majority in the Legislative Council and it is believed that the government would not have had enough support to get the bill through.
The nine other Indian states where Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion laws (commonly known as “anti-conversion laws”) are already in force also have BJP-led governments. Such laws are intended to prevent Hindus converting to other religions and lead to increased violence against Christians because extremists use them as a licence to carry out attacks, falsely accusing Christians of forcibly converting Hindus.
Archbishop Peter Machado of Bengaluru (the state capital), who is president of the All Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights, spoke out against the signing of the bill in a press release, stating: “This is sad and surely it will affect the harmonious relationship that we enjoy with members of all the communities in Karnataka… We cannot understand the sudden turn of events and what is there in the mind of the Government with the ordinance in hand, there is no doubt that the fringe elements and groups will try to create problems for the members of our Community as we have seen in the past and the Government is in no control of them.”
Questioning the need for such a bill, Archbishop Machado pointed out that in Karnataka “there have been no incidents, neither of conversion, nor of aggressive incidents against the community.”
Karnataka’s opposition leader Siddaramaiah described the bill as “anti-constitution” and “draconian” and said that his Congress Party would immediately repeal the legislation if voted to power in Karnataka’s 2023 Assembly election. “We will repeal it hundred per cent, we will do it within a week after coming to power. We will repeal and throw it in the first session,” he told reporters.
Noting that the Constitution and Indian Penal Code already deal with the issue, Siddaramaiah added: “Our party is also opposed to religious conversion by force or through inducements. There are already provisions in the constitution and IPC to take action against such conversion.”
On the day the law was signed into effect, members of militant Hindutva organisation Bajrang Dal accused a pastor and his wife (pictured) in Karnataka’s Kodagu district of forcible conversion and had them arrested. In a video of the incident, Bajrang Dal members can be heard telling police that the anti-conversion bill should be applied to the couple.
Provisions of the new law
Karnataka’s new law reads, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any other person from one religion to another by use or practice of force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by any other means or promise of marriage, nor shall any person abet or conspire such conversion. Those who wish to change religions according to the standard should submit a written statement attesting to their wishes in advance.”
The law proposes prison sentences of between three and five years, with a fine of 25,000 Indian rupees (approximately €300), while for conversion involving a minor, a women or a member of a Scheduled Caste or Tribe, the prison sentence may be up to ten years, with a minimum fine of 50,000 INR. Offences registered under the legislation will be non-bailable, and the accused will have to prove that conversion was voluntary and not by force.
Anyone wishing to convert is required to give thirty days’ notice and officials will investigate the reason before granting permission. Dalits who convert will forego benefits they are entitled to as members of a Scheduled Caste.
The law states, however, that “reconversion” to an “immediate previous religion… shall not be deemed to be a conversion under this Act”. This exemption has been used in other states by radical Hindu nationalists to justify Ghar wapsi (“homecoming”) ceremonies at which people who left Hinduism are “reconverted”.
Karnataka pastor Sunil Mahade told International Christian Concern in October 2021, “The proposed anti-conversion law is nothing but a legal permit for radical Hindu nationalists to attack and harass religious minorities. The proposed anti-conversion law is unconstitutional as it violates the right to freedom of faith. There is absolutely no need of this law. There are enough clauses in the existing constitution to deal with forced or fraudulent conversions.”
Christian activist Dr John Dayal told International Christian Concern in December, “The bill that Karnataka tabled today is one of the harshest among similar laws. The major concern is the bill’s provision to jail those who indulge in mass conversions for a term from three to ten years.”
Archbishop Machado told The Indian Express, “Any help or concession provided by any of our Christian institutions working in the fields of education, health, senior citizen care and orphanages, to any member not from the Christian community, can be construed as an inducement for conversion as per the bill.”
Karnataka Congress President D K Shivakumar told reporters in December that children of all top BJP leaders are studying in Christian institutes, and said that the proposed anti-conversion bill would be a black mark on the state. “I have also studied in a Christian institute. Is there any instance of forceful conversions?” he asked. “The bill is against the constitution and it has to be opposed. The bill is being introduced to create unrest in society for political reasons… The bill is targeting Christians and it is a ploy to disturb the peace.“
On a similar note, Congress member of the Legislative Council C M Ibrahim commented, “It is shameful on the part of BJP leaders who get their children educated at Christian institutes, avail of health services at Christian hospitals and later blame Christians for conversions.”
(Asia News, Barnabas, BBC, Deccan Herald, International Christian Concern, NDTV, Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin, The Indian Express)