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Violence and law against religious propagation and conversions

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Video images of a Christian missionary group being attacked last month while distributing copies of Bible in Malleswaram in Bengaluru had been circulating in social media. In the video, a member of the group was distributing Bible copies and chocolates as Christmas gifts, while a group of people gathered and tried to stop them, grabbing the copies of the Bible in their hands and throwing them to the street. News has also emerged of 11 people being arrested in similar incidents of attack in Chhattisgarh's Narayanpur region. The arrested include past and present district presidents of the BJP. An attack on a church was also reported on Monday. After the incident, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad said that illegal conversions should be prevented within the ambit of the Constitution and the law, and that the incidents would not have happened if the efforts of the missionaries had been stopped earlier.

There are already anti-conversion laws in place in various states. Attempts were also made to pass such legislation at the national level in the past, but they did not succeed as planned. However, during the British rule, the princely states of Kota, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Raigarh and Udaiapur, where Hindu rules reigned, had laws to protect the Hindu faith from conversions to other religions. Efforts to enact an equivalent law in independent India did not take off. Finally, in 2015, the Union Law Ministry left it to the states on the grounds that it was a state matter. And such legislation did get passed in one BJP-ruled state after another - some passed as Acts and others as ordinances. Sikhism and Jainism were regarded as Indian religions and conversions outlawed or checked were conversions to Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Currently, the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Uttarakhand have such laws.

Although the provisions in their details vary, the core of most laws consists in setting barriers to religious conversion and giving punishments for 'converts' or those arranging them. Adoption of a religion of one's own free will would thus require permission, registration, prior notice, and more hurdles if it involves marriage. If a complaint is lodged alleging forced religious conversion, the accused will be immediately subjected to FIR and police action, and proving that there is no coercion would become the burden on the people involved in the conversion. And in addition, the legal process would itself become a punishment. Despite the fact that some of these laws have been challenged in the courts, a decisive verdict has yet to be issued. In one court case, a recent Madhya Pradesh High Court judgment barred the government from prosecuting couples through inter-caste marriage, without the permission of the district magistrate. When the petition filed by the state government in the Supreme Court came up for hearing the other day, the Chief Justice refused to stay the High Court verdict and said that not all religious conversions are illegal. The case is still pending and probably to be taken up in February.

The essence of anti-conversion laws is to work on a presumption of coercion in all conversions in the first place and then to put the onus of proof on the converted persons or those who arrange it. Then, using provisions of the law, motivated vigilantes enter the fray with complaints and then mobs handle the matter 'legally'. The end result is that a situation will be created where it becomes virtually impossible even if one wishes, to convert on one's own conviction and conscience. This flies in the face of the freedom to practise and propagate the religion of one's choice guaranteed under the constitution of the country. The advocates of Hindutva oppose this argument in principle saying that freedom is only for propagating religion and not for missionary work or proselytisation. Although it is clear that organized propagation is generally done only for spreading the message, and conversion normally happens only through personal conviction, the Sangh Parivar forces and the regimes that support them take it as yet another opportunity to strengthen their activities against 'other religions'. A healthy and conflict-free social environment can be achieved only through legal action and support for the rule of law by the courts to ensure the rights provided by the Constitution.

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TAGS:Attack on Christian groups Bible copies attack on church in Chhattisgarh anti-conversion laws presumption of coercion 
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