The Jharkhand Assembly, a state legislative body in north-eastern India, passed the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Bill-2017, also known as “Jharkhand Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam”, on Saturday 12 August.
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, said. “This is not just an attack on Christians, but is an attack on the religious freedom that the constitution gives to every citizen 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 marginalised 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 ($990), 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 ($1983).
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, said. “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”.
Source: International Christian Concern