Assam: Police seek information on religious conversions, unease within Christian community
A letter from the special branch of Assam police to the district administrations seeking information on religious conversions and the number of churches has triggered unease within the Christian community and discomfited the state’s BJP government.
A community leader expressed pain and concern over the move on Saturday, and chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma “completely” dissociated himself from the “unwarranted” letter, issued on December 16. Sarma said he had asked the state director-general of police to inquire and take “corrective measures”.
The letter, written by a superintendent of police (SP) with the special branch, sought information by December 22 on the number of churches established within the past one year, the number of existing churches, instances of religious conversion in the past six years, and the people involved in conversion activities.
The letter also sought to know about any cases registered against people involved in forcible conversions, or conversions effected through inducement, and about the factors responsible for religious conversions. The letter sought suggestions for checking conversions.
The special branch of the state police, established in 1965, deals with matters such as “the collection, collation and dissemination of intelligence having security and law and order implications”.
“We are deeply pained at the letter for the simple fact that the Christian community in Assam has rendered yeoman service in the fields of education and health,” Assam Christian Forum (ACF) spokesperson Allen Brooks said.
“We saw the letter yesterday (Friday) and we got calls from several places about the letter and the inquiries being conducted.”
Brooks added: “We welcome the statement of the chief minister but we are also apprehensive about how such a grave instruction could be issued by a junior officer without the knowledge of the higher-ups.”
The SP’s letter, copies of which were marked to special DGP G.P. Singh and home department principal secretary Niraj Verma, comes ahead of Assembly polls in two Christian-majority states in the region: Nagaland and Meghalaya.
Chief minister Sarma, who also holds the home portfolio, said he had received a copy of the letter on Friday.
“I think we should not ask for such kind of information, like how many churches (are there) in Assam. This might hurt the sentiments of a particular religious community.... I would like to clarify the position of the government of Assam: We don’t want to have any survey on any church or, for that matter, on any other religious institution,” he said.
“In short, I completely dissociate myself from the letter. It was never discussed at any government forum. The letter is wholly unwarranted. As an Assamese, as a citizen of Assam, we want to live in peace and harmony with all communities. I think the DGP will take corrective measures immediately.”
On the issue of conversions, Sarma said: “There is a distinction between forcible conversion and otherwise. In Assam, we don’t have any law to regulate conversions as of now. I will look into how the letter originated, that too at the level of an SP.
“Such a letter goes out from the home department, such a letter goes out from the DGP, if at all the government wants to issue such a letter. But this letter was issued by an SP of the special branch. Let me check what the background is, why such a letter was issued.”
The letter appears to be a follow-up on a discussion on conversions at the November 2 conference of SPs in Guwahati.
The issue of religious conversions came under the spotlight in Assam in October when the police detained three Swedish nationals, and later seven German nationals, for violating tourist visa norms by engaging missionary activities in the Dibrugarh and Karbi Anglong districts, respectively. They were deported after paying a fine of $500 each for violating visa rules.
Christians make up four per cent of Assam’s population. Christian missionaries have made huge contributions to the education and health sectors in the Northeast since the 1840s.
Their contributions in Assam include the co-ed Nowgong Mission High School in Nagaon town, which completed 175 years on November 14 this year. Christian missionaries also produced the first monthly Assamese news magazine, Orunodoi, in 1846 from Sivasagar.
The Don Bosco Society completed 100 years in Assam and the Northeast this year.