//Thousands join campaign against anti-conversion laws in India

Thousands join campaign against anti-conversion laws in India

By Santosh Digal

Many prominent citizens in India demanded a repeal of all anti-conversion laws in India, in the context of the Anti-Conversion Bill scheduled to be tabled in Karnataka Upper Chamber on February 14.

“An anti-conversion law is not necessary since the Indian Constitution has enough provisions for the same,” said Dr. Ram Puniyani, convener of the National Solidarity Forum (NSF).

NSF is a consortium of more than 70 organizations, civil society groups and individuals from various disciplines, professions and walks of life. It was established in the aftermath of violence against Dalit and Adivasi Christians in the Kandhamal district of Odisha, the eastern Indian state and several other places in 2008.

“Wherever the Anti-Conversion law, ironically officially called Freedom of Religion Act, was passed, it became a justification for the persecution of the minorities and other marginalized identities. The attacks on the minorities grew sharply in recent years since this law was used as a weapon targeting the dignity of Christians and Muslims particularly belonging to Adivasis, Dalits, and women,” the February 10 statement read.

The petition called for joining hands to defend the values enshrined in the Constitution and protection of human rights of the religious minorities and other marginalized sections in India.

In India, from the last few years, there have been scattered and sporadic sub-radar attacks on Christian and Muslim communities (both are religious minorities in India). Besides, pro-Hindu groups have a pretext that Christian missionaries are converting by force, fraud, coercion, or allurement.

Indian population census shows a marginal decline in the percentage of Christians from 2.6 percent in 1971 to 2.3 percent in 2011.

“These anti-conversion laws, generally called freedom of religion laws, are attempts to intimidate the Christian community, and the planned law in Karnataka is on the same lines,” said Punyani, a former professor of biomedical engineering, former senior medical officer and human rights activist.

According to Father Ajay Kumar Singh, co-convenor of NSF, “A Dalit converted to Christianity or Islam loses the reservation and protection from the State. The Dalit does not lose any reservation and protection if he or she converts to Sikhism, Jainism, or Buddhism. It is a reality that the discriminatory Dalit identity does not change no matter which religion one belongs to.”

There are stringent penalties for restricting the Dalit (formerly untouchables) and Adivasi (tribals) to convert to Christianity or Islam. This law itself acts as an inducement to remain in Hinduism and violates the individual’s right to choose one’s religion. It treats them as objects, who cannot decide for themselves, explained Singh, an award-winning human rights activist.

“The law disrespects women and places restrictions for a woman to choose her partner. It is conceived with a notion that women in India are not in a position to think on their own and act on their own. This law is highly patriarchal. It is not acceptable,” said Vidya Dinkar, a human rights activist and a core team member of NSF.

If the upper house in Karnataka passes the anti-conversion law, it will join Odisha (formerly Orissa), Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Rajasthan states that have already enacted similar laws with some variations in its provisions.

These laws are seemingly against conversions (mostly to Christianity) by force or fraudulent means, including monetary inducements, medical aid and free education.

Dr. John Dayal, senior journalist, human rights activist and a founder member of the NSF stated, “The Anti-Conversion Laws are not just affecting the Christians alone, they are meant for further persecution on the Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, and women also in India. They violate the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution and its secular heritage.”

“This law discriminates against certain religions. It is a violation of the principle enshrined in the Indian Constitution that all religions are equal. It is meant to strengthen religious conflicts and majoritarian nationalism in India. Moreover, it infantilizes the poor and gives the State power over deeply personal matters.” said Brinnelle D’Souza, Centre for Health and Mental Health, School of Social Work, Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Thousands of people have already responded to the petition immediately by endorsing it and thousands of endorsements are pouring in.

Supporting the petition, Margaret Alva, the former Governor of Goa, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand, appealed, “the National Solidarity Forum is trying to collect signatures of people from all religions and backgrounds to dissuade the Government from passing this Bill. I request you to sign this appeal to withdraw the anti-Christian bill and such laws in other states of the country.”

Many political parties like Congress, Janata Dal, Aam Aadmi Party, Welfare Party, Socialist Party (India), and other political organizations have already come forward strongly against the Anti-Conversion Bill and the need to protect the Indian Constitution and the secular tradition in India.

The initial signatories for the petition to the President of India included nationally well-known citizens like Admiral L Ramdas (former chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy), Mallika Sarabhai (accomplished dancer and choreographer),  Medha Patkar (NAPM), Anand Patwardhan (film maker), Mani Shankar Aiyar (former federal minister), Prof. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd (writer, academician), Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore, Margaret Alva (former Governor of Goa, Gujarat and Uttarakhand), Teesta Setalvad (advocate, civil rights activist), K. Satchidanandan (writer, poet, former secretary of Sahitya Akademi), Annie Raja (National Federation of Indian Women), Prof. Ram Puniyani, Harsh Mander (author, social activist), Kavita Krishnan (AIPWA), Dr. John Dayal (senior journalist), Sandeep Pandy (general secretary, Socialist Party of India), Tehmina Arora (human rights activist), Brinelle D’Souza (Centre for Health and Mental Health), Susmit Bose (musician), Irfan Engineer (Centre for Study of Society and Secularism), Vidya Dinkar (human rights activist), K.P Sasi, co-convener, NSF and others.

Credit: Radio Veritas Asia