Religion and State

Outlawing apostasy? Jharkhand’s anti-conversion bill is a body blow to freedom of religion in India

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempts at policing religious belief will push the country into a dark age.

The state of Jharkhand was created in 2000 as a homeland for Adivasis. Yet, since then, ironically, Hindutva has dominated the state. In the 16 years since Jharkhand came into existence, Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have been chief ministers for more than 10. In 2005, the state passed a cow slaughter law, in spite of the fact that there is no taboo against beef in the Adivasi faiths. And on Saturday, the Jharkhand Assembly passed a bill that seeks to put severe restrictions on religious conversions in the state. A conversion undertaken in exchange for “allurement”, for example, would be illegal. Moreover, any conversion would require permission from the state government.

Christian missionaries entered the Chota Nagpur Plateau – the region that would later become modern-day Jharkhand – during the British Raj. Their impact in terms of numbers was modest. Only 4% of Jharkhand today is Christian. Within the state’s Adivasis, Christianity is only the third most followed religion, lagging both the indigenous Adivasi faith Sarnaism as well as Hinduism. Yet, the development work carried out by the missionaries means that Christian Adivasis are better educated than others of their community. This is one reason for the conversion law in the first place, claim opponents of the bill. “[Chief Minister] Raghubar Das is doing this because Christian tribals, who are educated, helped raise awareness against his government’s land-grab efforts,” said Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha.

History of religious unfreedom

Attempts to restrict conversions began as soon as the modern Indian state was born in 1947. Parliament saw two bills being introduced under the Jawaharlal Nehru government that sought to clamp down on the freedom to change one’s faith. Both were opposed by Prime Minister Nehru, who saw how dangerous any policing of thought could be. Speaking in the Lok Sabha in 1955, Nehru said:

“I fear this bill will not help very much in suppressing the evil methods [of gaining converts], but might very well be the cause of great harassment to a large number of people. Also, we have to take into consideration that, however carefully you define these matters, you cannot find really proper phraseology for them. The major evils of coercion and deception can be dealt with under the general law. It may be difficult to obtain proof but so is it difficult to obtain proof in the case of many other offences, but to suggest that there should be a licensing system for propagating a faith is not proper. It would lead in its wake to the police having too large a power of interference.”

This opposition by Nehru could stymie a Union law but many states went ahead with similar laws anyway. In 1967, Odisha’s Right-wing Swatantra Party government enacted India first anti-conversion law calling it, ironically, a “Freedom of Religion” Law. Today five states – Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh – have active anti-conversion laws.

Arunachal Pradesh has an anti-conversion law but it is in limbo since the rules have not been framed. Rajasthan passed a similar law a decade ago but the bill is yet to get the assent of the President of India.

Kafkaesque burden

All the state laws are similar in scope. They do not directly ban conversion but make conversion by “force, allurement, inducement or fraud” illegal. Of course, these terms are not defined, giving the state a wide berth to harass the powerless.

For instance, in Jharkhand’s new law – the Religious Freedom Bill, 2017 – the word “force” also includes the “threat of divine displeasure”. So is the Christian belief that only people who accept Jesus will be saved from damnation also then “force”?

The term “allurement” is also not defined. So, is education or healthcare “allurement”? And what is “fraud”? Jharkhand’s Act defines it as “misrepresentation”. But then, from a rationalist point of view, all religions indulge in “misrepresentation”. So then is propagating Christianity or Islam itself fraud under this law?

Savarna paternalism

Most of all, all anti-conversion laws assume that the person actually being converted has no agency – political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls these laws “illegitimately paternalistic”. Unfortunately, this sort of paternalism has a long history in Indian political thought. In 1941, Gandhi, opposed missionary activity amongst Dalits with this curious argument:

“Would you, Dr. Mott [a Christian evangelist], preach the Gospel to a cow? Well, some of the untouchables are worse than cows in understanding. I mean they can no more distinguish between the relative merits of Islam and Hinduism and Christianity than a cow.”

This crushing paternalism was picked up by India’s judiciary. In 1973, the Odisha High Court backed the state’s anti-conversion law by using logic very similar to Gandhi’s. The law was needed to protect people from the “down trodden sections of society” since they possessed an “undeveloped mind”. In 1977, the Supreme Court would itself uphold anti-conversion laws and declare that conversion, by itself, was not a right, and could be regulated by the state. The same paternalism, which drove Gandhi and the Odisha High Court, reared its head here too.

“The court seems to assume throughout that people are somehow not capable of managing ‘religious’ ideas they receive, particularly if they are from lower castes,” argued Mehta, commenting on the Supreme Court’s 1977 judgement.

Draconian state

Opposition to conversion has helped India’s upper caste elites consolidate power. In Jharkhand, it serves to divide Adivasi society. In other states, Dalits are targets. BR Ambedkar, for example, was clear that conversion is a means of ensuring rights for Dalits. He himself converted to Buddhism in 1956 in a mass ceremony in Nagpur. Since then, many Dalits have used conversion as a means to protest caste atrocities. In 1981, for example, 1,000 Dalits in a Tamil Nadu village converted to protest oppression from the powerful Marava caste. In 2002, Jhajjar, Haryana, saw hundreds of Dalits convert to Buddhism, Islam and Christianity as a protest against a mob lynching five Dalits on the suspicion of slaughtering a cow.

By making the private domain of religious belief and thought open to regulation by the state, states like Jharkhand have set a draconian precedent. The BJP’s attempts to make laws on apostasy will be a body blow to Indian secularism and Dalit-Adivasi rights, pushing India into a dark age.

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