Christians in Arunachal Pradesh have welcomed Chief Minister Pema Khandu’s statement that the government will seek to repeal in the next Assembly session a four-decade-old law that curbs religious conversions. The followers of indigenous faiths in the state, however, have criticised the chief minister’s statement and claimed that it was necessary to protect traditional belief systems and local cultures.

The state passed the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act in 1978, and became the third state after Odisha (1967) and Madhya Pradesh (1968) to enact such a law.

“The law could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians,” Khandu, who heads the state’s BJP government, was quoted as saying by the Hindustan Times. “Any misuse of the law leading to torture of people could trigger large-scale violence in the state and could break Arunachal into pieces.”

He made the remarks at a function organised by the Arunachal Pradesh Catholic Association to mark the 10th death anniversary of Reverend Brother Prem Bhai, a Benedictine missionary. Prem Bhai, who died in Sri Lanka in 2008, spent 25 years proselytising in Arunachal Pradesh despite repeated arrests and imprisonment under the law, which subjected people to two years of imprisonment and a Rs 10,000 penalty.

The Arunachal Christian Forum welcomed Khandu’s statement and claimed that the government’s decision had nothing to do with next year’s Assembly elections, The New Indian Express reported. “This has nothing to do with politics,” said the forum’s leader Toko Teki. “The Christians in Arunachal vote candidates by judging their performance. Had it not been so, [Minister of State for Home Affairs] Kiren Rijiju would not have won in Lok Sabha elections twice. His constituency has a large number of Christians.”

Teki said Khandu must have realised the futility of the law. “When the Hindus construct a temple, they don’t need any permission,” he claimed. “They can construct it anywhere. However, when the Christians plan to construct a church, the district authorities create a lot of hurdles. They instigate local non-Christians to create a problem. They do this despite the Christians being locals.”

The Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh, or IFCSAP, and the Nyishi Indigenous Faiths and Cultural Society – which fight for the preservation of indigenous faiths such as Donyi-Polo and Rangfra – described the government’s proposed move as “minority appeasement and detrimental to the growth of indigenous people of the State”, The Hindu reported. The Nyishi, belonging to the Tani group, are the largest ethnic community in the state.

“We condemn the statement of the chief minister as the anti-conversion law, if repealed, would threaten the indigenous culture of the state,” said IFCSAP General Secretary Bai Taba. “There is also the apprehension among the people that the chief minister is bringing the denizens of Arunachal Pradesh under the minority or general category and stripping the special privileges which we have been enjoying as Scheduled Tribes.”