Monday, 30th October 2017

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Ranchi conversion law sparks outrage

No change of religion without permission

By Pheroze L. Vincent
  • Published 13.08.17

New Delhi, Aug. 12: Jharkhand today enacted a law restricting religious conversions, inviting charges of targeting Christians and prompting Church leaders to mull a legal challenge.

The bill was introduced and passed a day after several Ranchi newspapers featured a full front-page Hindi ad from the state government, which attacked Christian missionaries by using a purported Mahatma Gandhi quote whose authenticity has been questioned.

The Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act 2017 mandates four years' jail or a Rs 1-lakh fine or both for people and organisations converting women, minors and people from the Dalit and tribal communities through inducement or blackmail.

For forced conversion of adult males from other communities, the jail term will be three years and the fine, Rs 50,000. Those seeking voluntary conversion would need permission from the deputy commissioner, who will first examine the circumstances of the conversion.

"They want us to go to court, where lakhs will be spent on lawyers and we'll get bogged down in their game. Instead, we'll build a public movement," Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha said after the Opposition walked out of the Assembly protesting the hurried passage of the bill.

"It's an attempt to pit Sarnas (non-Hindu, non-Christian tribal people) against Christians. (Chief minister) Raghubar Das is doing this because Christian tribals, who are educated, helped raise awareness against his government's land-grab efforts."

Jamshedpur Bishop Felix Toppo, chairman of the Jharkhand Regional Bishops Council, said the bishops would meet early next week to chart their course.

"We'll first meet the chief minister and make an earnest appeal, as the idea behind this law seems to be the persecution of Christians. (Later, if necessary) we'll discuss legal means to stop this."

Yesterday's newspaper ad quoted the Mahatma as saying: "If missionaries feel that a human being can attain intellectual salvation only after converting to Christianity, why don't they begin with me or Mahadeo Desai (Gandhi's private secretary). Why do they want to convert poor, innocent and ignorant forest dwellers?"

Gandhi was quoted as further saying the tribal people were "mute and simple, like cows" and converted "not for Jesus but for rice".

The ad did not say where, when and to whom the Mahatma had said this. Activists such as Gladson Dungdung and Vasavi Kiro said Gandhi was not known to use the word " vanvasi" - a Sangh coinage used in the ad - for the tribal communities.

In Delhi, activists John Dayal, Harsh Mander and others are planning to file an FIR against the state government as well as the publications that printed the ad and the agency that designed it.

"Regardless of what the Church does, the state has tried to spread hatred and incite violence through the ad. So, we'll file a case," Dayal said.

Biswanath Tirkey, vice-president of the All India Sarna Religious and Social Coordination Committee, criticised the law.

"If the BJP was interested in protecting our faith, why couldn't they codify our personal laws like those of other religions, as we have been demanding?" he said.

Tirkey said the government was scared after the tribal communities' recent land protests and the Adivasi Diwas celebrations on August 9, and wanted to play "divide and rule".

The conversion law comes after the state government unsuccessfully tried to amend