Christians and other minority groups in India remain concerned over what they see as draconian provisions in an anti-conversion bill passed in the legislature of Rajasthan late last week.
The state is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The bill went through despite a boycott by opposition parties in the chamber.
Secular human rights advocates then joined Christians and Muslims at a meeting in the state capital of Jaipur over the weekend to denounce the bill, which is seen as a political threat to their freedoms.
Activists fear the legislation will be misused to hound minorities – especially Christians, who have been facing widespread harassment at the hands of Hindu militants.
Overall, India has an honourable tradition of neutral secularity in governance and religious tolerance in civil society. Critics of the BJP say that it is threatening this legacy and bringing dishonour to the Hindu faith.
For many years, India’s Hindu nationalists have accused Christians of bribing and cajoling poor tribes people to change their faith. But church representatives deny mass conversions and say that those who do convert often do so without encouragement to escape the rigid caste hierarchy.
Dalit campaigners (working for those popularly called ‘untouchables’, but who prefer the term Dalit as a badge of honour) say the BJP is making mischievous propaganda.
“Some religious institutions, bodies and individuals are involved in unlawful conversion by allurement or by fraudulent means or forcibly,” Gulab Chand Kataria, Rajasthan’s interior minister, declared, justifying the bill.
But Salim Engineer, state general secretary of Jamait-e-Islami Hind, described the move as an “act of fascism”. “Such an act defies logic, since conversion activities have rarely been reported in the state,” said the Muslim leader.
His viewpoint was backed by secularists and human rights observers, who say that the real motive of the anti-conversion law is to solidify the political power of the BJP and to frighten opposition.
Similar laws have been used to harass, imprison or exclude Christian workers in five other Indian states, all ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party or its allies.
The act still needs to be ratified by the governor in Rajasthan to take effect. The offence of proselytism will be punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of 50,000 rupees (950 Euros) if it goes through.
In a linked move, hundreds of Christians marched through the streets of India’s capital on Friday to protest about atrocities committed against Christian missionaries and institutions in Rajasthan and the arrest of Bishop Samuel Thomas of Emmanuel Mission.
The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) organized the rally in Delhi. Later they submitted a memorandum to Indian President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister Shivraj Patil.
Tension between Christians and Hindus flared up eight years ago when church halls were burned in the western state of Gujarat. Then in 1999 an Australian Baptist missionary and his two young sons were killed in a remote tribal area in the eastern state of Orissa.
Hindus account for around 80 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people and Christians fewer than three percent. Muslims make up around 14 percent, but Hindus and Muslims changing faith from one to the other is extremely rare.