The law imposes harsher penalties: up to five years in prison for conversion by force, deception and marriage; up to seven if Dalits, women and children are involved.
Mumbai (AsiaNews) – The Himachal Pradesh government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, has approved a new, more restrictive law on "religious freedom" with serious penalties for those who carry out “forced” conversions. For Sajan K George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), "Anti-conversion laws are a tool to harass vulnerable Christians".
The State Assembly on Saturday approved the Freedom of Religion Act 2019 by a large majority. According to its Hindu nationalist promoters, it aims at guaranteeing full religious freedom, prohibiting conversions by force, misrepresentation, excessive conditioning, coercion, flattery, marriage, or any other fraudulent means.
Anyone convicted can face prison sentences ranging from a one to five years, seven if it involves the conversion of Dalits, women and minors.
The legislation requires would-be converts and celebrating clerics to declare their intention one month in advance in a letter to a district magistrate. By contrast, anyone who wants to return to the religion of the forebears is not under such obligation.
"The previous 2006 law provided for a maximum of two years in prison for those who broke the rules,” Sajan K George explained. “The new law contains some terms that were absent in the past, such as coercion, misrepresentation, marriage, excessive influence. Section 5 of the law declares marriage to be null and void if was done for the sole purpose of conversion."
According to the Christian leader, "anti-conversion laws discriminate against religious minorities. They can plant seeds of sectarian suspicion among communities that have lived together in a peaceful manner and can be used against the weakest in society, in particular Dalits, women and children."