Religious conversion was criminalised in India’s Jharkhand State on 11 September with the introduction of the so-called ‘Freedom of Religion’ law, making Jharkhand the seventh State to introduce such legislations after Odhisa (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Chhattisgarh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Gujarat (2003) and Himachal Pradesh (2006).
Section 3 of the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act 2017 declares “no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion/ religious faith to another by the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means, nor shall any person abet any such conversion.” The punishment includes a prison term of up to three years and/or a fine up to fifty thousand rupees (equivalent to about £580).
If the ‘crime’ involves a minor, woman or Scheduled Caste or Tribe – castes or tribes that have historically been socially and economically disadvantaged, such as Dalits – the penalties include a prison sentence of up to four years and/or a fine up to one hundred thousand rupees (equivalent to about £1,161).
Wide powers are given to the district authorities to investigate allegations and prior permission must be sought before a conversion can take place, ignoring the fundamental rights to free choice.
Like the laws in the other six States, the Jharkhand law is being used to validate the State’s agenda to establish a Hindu rashtra, or kingdom, and to circumvent Article 25(1) of the Indian Constitution, which grants “freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”
The Jharkhand law also contravenes international legal jurisprudence on freedom of religion or belief and UN experts warn that such laws can have severe practical consequences, fuelling intolerance, hostility and violence against religious minorities.
Contravenes international legal jurisprudence
India has acceded to the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and is therefore bound by Article 18, which states “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”
The State cannot force someone to have or adopt a religion or belief by imposing physical force or penal sanctions, making the Jharkhand law contrary to international human rights standards.
A template for intolerance, hostility and violence
In his August 2017 interim report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, warned of a government’s role in nurturing and aggravating conditions where extremism can flourish. He observed that intolerance manifests itself through discrimination, hostility and violence.
The Jharkhand law requires that no person is to be converted by force, allurement or fraud, but these terms are not clearly defined. This leaves the law open to interpretation and abuse and may be used to discriminate against religious minorities.
Case Study One:
On 15 September in Simdega village, a mob of fundamentalists accused the local Christian community of forcing Prakash* and his wife to convert to Christianity. Prakash and his wife have been excommunicated from their village for seeking prayer support. Six Christians have been charged with conversion and are on bail awaiting trial.
Case Study Two:
On 24th September in Gumla District, two lay church leaders Sanjay* and Rajesh* were invited to pray for Nirmala,* a pregnant lady. With no finance to take her to the hospital, Sanjay and Rajesh and a few members of the local Christian community agreed to take her to the hospital. Unfortunately, she died on the way to the hospital and the local Christian community paid the expenses for her burial. On learning about what had happened, members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (a Hundi nationalist group) forced her widowed husband to sign a letter admitting that Sanjay and Rajesh and the local Christian community were the cause of her death.
Although it is early days and the impact of the law on Jharkhand’s religious minorities is yet to be documented, the reality is that such laws will exacerbate intolerance leading to discrimination and violence, in situations where prejudice towards Christians is already rife.
Case Study Three:
On 30 September in Hazaribagh District, Pastor Ramu* and Samir* a professor at a local higher institution were accused of forcibly converting a lady and her son to Christianity. The woman and her son had converted to Christianity with the consent of her husband. However, he was later approached by members of two Hindu nationalist groups (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishnu Hindu Parishad) threatening to take over his home and land unless he made a written complaint to the police that Ramu and Suraj had forcefully converted his family.
* Names have been changed for security reasons
The right to freedom of religion or belief is clearly enshrined in international law and under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. However, the freedom to have and adopt a religion of one’s choosing, and to share one’s religion, are being undermined by these anti- conversion laws, which create a culture of intolerance and embolden those who would stir up violence against religious minorities.
By CSW’s India Advocacy Officer