In 1978, Arunachal Pradesh became the third Indian state to enact an anti-conversion law, primarily to counter proselytisation by Christian missionaries. Now, 40 years later, Chief Minister Pema Khandu has said his Bharatiya Janata Party government would repeal the law as it “undermines secularism” and is biased against Christians.

The law, christened Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, prohibits “conversion from one religious faith to any other religious faith by use of force or inducement or by fraudulent means”.

The chief minister’s remarks have created a furor in the state where Christianity has made significant inroads in the last few decades and is seen by some as a threat to indigenous cultures.

Rise of Christianity

In 1971, Christians comprised less than 1% of the state’s population. By 2011, they were over 30%, making them the single-largest religious community. In the same period, followers of the indigenous faiths such as Donyi-Polo, Rangfraa and Amik Matai declined from 51.6% to 26% of the state’s population.

The primary incentive for the people flocking to Christianity was the “promise of education and good medical services”, said Jumyir Basar of the Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies. “There was little belief in traditional healing practices as there were few shamans who could provide good service,” she added. “Besides, many traditional rituals involve expensive sacrifices that people often cannot afford.”

But Christians leaders insist the surge in the community’s numbers should be attributed to “not conversions but conviction”. “People love Christianity, people believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ,” said Toko Teki of the Arunachal Christian Forum, which has petitioned the government in the past to rescind the law.

Teki is happy with the “wise decision” taken by the “well-educated and broad minded chief minister”. “This law was against the secular spirit of the Constitution,” Teki said. “By saying the law will be repealed, the chief minister has fulfilled on old demand of the Christian community.”

‘Hardly ever used’

Teki suspected that the decision stemmed from the fact that the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act was barely ever used. Reverend Nyakdo Tasar, president of the Arunachal Pradesh Christian Revival Church Council, agreed. “As per the law, there should have been no conversions, but people have embraced Christianity in Arunachal as a way of life,” he said.

Nani Bath, who teaches political science at Arunachal University, confirmed this was the case. “It may have been used a few times in the late ’70s and early ’80s but hardly ever after that,” he said.

‘There will be mass conversion’

Representatives of the state’s indigenous faiths are not convinced. Pai Dawe of the Nyishi Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society called the chief minister’s statement “very unfortunate”. “Though it was never implemented, the law helped stop rampant conversions by allurement,” he said. “If it is repealed, there will be mass conversions, even at gunpoint, not just to Christianity but any other religion.”

Basar partly agreed. “Yes, the law was not enforced strictly but it did serve to put in some checks,” she said. She, however, added that it was unlikely that repealing the law would significantly increase conversions. “The numbers clearly show it’s been happening, so it will keep happening in the future too,” she said.

In any case, Basar pointed out, it was not “strictly an anti-conversion law”. “It only prevented conversions by fraudulent means,” she explained.

Basar pointed out that many of the state’s indigenous faiths had also started to be clubbed under the wider umbrella of Hinduism.

The numbers bear that out: Followers of Hinduism in the state has seen a rise from 22% in 1971 to 29.04% in 2011. The rise, however, was much more pronounced till 1991 when Hindus comprised 37.04% of Arunachal Pradesh’s population. Since then, the proportion has declined.

Gyati Anda, a follower of Donyi-Polo and a member of the Indigenous Faith and Culture Society of Arunachal Pradesh, said it was an unwarranted decision. “Our indigenous cultures are not well organised or documented properly, and the government, instead of preserving and prompting them, is further pushing our culture to oblivion,” he alleged. “If the Act is actually removed, this will be a historical blunder.”

Eyeing Christian votes?

That the decision to repeal the law came from a BJP leader has surprised many people. The party’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has long been working with many of the state’s indigenous faiths groups, funding their schools and cultural centres. “We were expecting that the law would be strengthened under the BJP, but they are talking about repealing it,” said Dawe. “We are very surprised.”

Bath also expressed his surprise. He suggested the chief minister may have spoken with his sights on next year’s Assembly election.

Anda said he felt particularly let down by the RSS. “They should have spoken out at least, but they haven’t because it is their government,” he said. “The CM’s statement was obviously at the behest of Christian groups.”

RSS functionaries in Arunachal declined to comment on the matter.

Teki claimed Khandu’s decision would alter “the general perception of the Christian population towards the BJP”. “Church leaders would think the BJP is anti-Christian, but that will change now,” he said.