12/28/2020 India (International Christian Concern) – According to media in India’s Madhya Pradesh state, the state cabinet approved a bill that would allow the BJP-led government to more strictly regulate religious conversions and criminalize religious conversion by marriage, financial allurement, or force. The new bill, which would be the most stringent anti-conversion law in India, would replace the Religious Freedom Act of 1968, one of India’s oldest anti-conversion laws.
With the state’s legislative assembly out of session, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan, a member of the BJP, announced his government would promulgate the bill as law on Tuesday, December 29.
According to the bill, entitled the MP Freedom to Religion Bill 2020, individuals seeking to change their religion will need to apply to the district administration 60 days in advance. Religious leaders facilitating religious conversions would also need to inform the district administration 60 days in advance. If the previsions of the bill are not followed individuals could face a jail sentence of three to five years and a financial penalty of 50,000 rupees.
Individuals found conducting religious conversions by marriage, fraud, financial allurement, or force would face a jail sentence of one to five years and a financial penalty of 15,000 rupees. The bill includes a special clause for minor and individuals from low castes. Individuals found illegally converting individuals from these classes of people would face a jail sentence of three to ten years and a financial penalty of 25,000 rupees.
The bill does, however, exempt reconversions to one’s “ancestral religion”. The draft law defines “ancestral religion” as the religion of the father of the person at the time of his birth. Elaborating on the exemption, Madhya Pradesh Home Minister, Narottam Mishra, explained that reconversion will not be punished because it is “more a realization of a mistake than a crime.”
Historically, radical Hindu nationalists have used the specter of mass religious conversions to Christianity as justification to pass similar laws limiting religious freedom. According to these nationalists, Indian Christians are accused of converting poor Hindus to Christianity in mass by fraudulent means.
However, India’s own population data does not support this conspiracy. In 1951, the first census after independence, Christians made up 2.3% of India’s population. According to the 2011 census, the most recent census data available, Christians still make up 2.3% of the population.
In states where similar anti-conversion laws are currently enacted, including Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttrakhand, they are widely abused. Radical nationalists abuse these laws by falsely accusing Christians of forcefully converting individuals to Christianity to justify harassment and assault. Local police often overlook violence perpetrated against Christians due to the false accusation of forced conversions.
To date, no individual has been convicted of forced conversions in India. This is in spite of the fact that some of the anti-conversion laws have been on the books since 1967.