08/14/2017 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that the Jharkhand Assembly, a state legislative body in northeastern India, passed the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Bill-2017, also known as “Jharkhand Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam,” on Saturday, August 12. The bill will now be sent to the governor, following whose approval it would go to the president for final assent. The bill was passed by the BJP-led government despite significant opposition from religious groups, civil society, and the tribal groups across Jharkhand.
“This is very unfortunate for the people of Jharkhand,” Rev. Dr. Man Maish Ekka, a member of the Jharkhand Sadbhavana Munch, a local religious freedom forum, told ICC. “This is not just an attack on Christians, but is an attack on the religious freedom that the constitution gives to very citizens of this country. The motive of the bill is to divide the tribal people and break their unity.”
“[These] anti-conversion laws, ironically titled freedom of religion laws, are actually aimed at taking away the freedom of religion and rights of tribal and other marginalized sections of the Indian society,” Rev. Vijayesh Lal, General Secretary Evangelical Fellowship of India, stated in a press statement.
Section 3 of the law states, “No person shall attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means, nor shall any person abet any such conversion.” Punishment under this bill would include imprisonment of up to three years, a fine of 50,000 Rupees, or both. In cases where a minor, a woman, or a person from the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities were involved, the prison sentence would increase to four years and the fine to 100,000 Rupees.
Although similar laws exist in six other states in India, those governments have not defined the terms “inducement,” “coercion,” “force,” or “fraud” in the context of religious conversions. Due to this legal ambiguity, these laws have been widely abused by radical Hindu nationalist groups to harass and intimidate Christians while claiming to be under the auspices of state law.
“The anti-conversion law will ruin the lives and the witness of the church,” a local pastor in Ranchi, who wished to remain anonymous, told ICC. “The BJP, having the power both at the national level and the state, wants to implement its Hindutva ideology. This bill will further divide the people of Jharkhand, particularly divide the tribal people who lived in unity for ages.”
William Stark, ICC’s Regional Manager, said, “We here at International Christian Concern are deeply disappointed to see another state in India pass an anti-conversion law, especially in the face of so much local opposition. These laws are widely abused by Hindu radicals due to the legal ambiguity within the laws themselves. Often, these laws provide an easy excuse for radicals to attack Christian leaders with impunity. One simply needs to claim the pastor was forcefully converting an individual following an assault. As a result, instead of the pastor’s assailants being arrested, it’s the assailed pastor who is arrested by police following an attack. With attacks on Christians skyrocketing, the adoption of a law that would only incite more violence seems to be another step away from India enforcing religious freedom for all.”