Uttarakhand adopts draft bill against forced conversions

The new Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion bill follows the existing anti-conversion law. Christians in the state are 0.3 per cent of the population. The draft’s aim is “to threaten religious minorities” and “Dalits”.

Dehradun (AsiaNews) – The Hindu nationalist cabinet of Uttarakhand (northern India) approved a draft bill against forced conversions, making the offence non-bailable.

Under the new legislation, anyone found guilty of such a practice could face a prison term of one to five years. The minimum jail term would be two years if the victim were a member of a Scheduled Class or Tribe.

"The decision to enact an anti-conversion law is fuelled by the ruling party’s communal agenda," said John Dayal, former national president of the All India Catholic Union, speaking to AsiaNews.

The state cabinet, under Trivendra Singh Rawat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), approved on 13 March the draft bill, which would become the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act (Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrya Adhiniyam).

The government's goal is to criminalise any attempt to convert through financial inducements and/or deception. If someone wants to change faith, he or she must file a request at least a month before with a district magistrate. The authorities must also be notified of any religious meetings.

The new bill follows the state’s existing law, which Christians had already criticised as a tool to persecute all those who want to embrace a religion other than Hinduism.

For Dayal, "there are no forced or fraudulent conversions in the State of Uttarakhand. Christians are a tiny minority. For this reason, the only explanation (for the bill) is it represents an attempt to threaten religious minorities or limit the freedom of worship of Dalits and backward communities, whose rights are already crushed by the upper castes that rule the state."

The last census in 2011 shows that 82.9 per cent of the state’s population was Hindu. Another 13.9 per cent were Muslims and only 0.3 per cent are Christians.

“The Church in Uttarakhand is free to practise, preach and worship,” said Mgr John Vadakel, bishop of Bijnor. “There is no intolerance towards the Christian faith. The administration and government officials have good and friendly relations” with Christians, he said.

Dayal agrees. "Precisely for this reason, we do not understand the reason for this new law that criminalises a right guaranteed by the Constitution, that is the right to profess or change one’s religion”.

"We must remember,” he noted, “that the ruling party came to power with a communal platform. The draft could become law before the end of the year. If that were the case, we will challenge it in the courts of law and public opinion."