A seventh Indian state has enacted a law aimed at restricting people's freedom to convert from one religion to another.
The anti-conversion law passed in Uttarakhand state will punish 'forced' conversions by a jail term of between one and five years, according to International Christian Concern. If the 'victim' is a minor, a woman or belongs to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe – designations for Dalits and tribal people outside the Hindu caste system – the minimum sentence is two years.
People wishing to convert have to obtain permission from the state government and clergy have to give a month's notice before performing a conversion ceremony.
Christians in Uttarakhand fear that Hindu radicals will abuse this new law to harass their community. 'Almost on a daily basis, we hear about Christians being threatened and abused by Hindu radicals,' Bishop Vinod Tyagi from Roorkie told ICC. 'Having the anti-conversion bill passed will be much worse for Christians. I have been threatened a number of times and told to close down my church. They even told me they will kill me if I continue my ministry.'
He continued: 'We did protest against the law, saying it directly targeted the rights of minority communities and organised a rally in the state capital Dehradun. Over 500 Christians came, but we doubt such a micro-minority voice can be heard by the government.'
Campaigners say the passing of the law reflects the influence of Hindu nationalism under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
William Stark, ICC's regional manager, said: 'These laws are widely abused by Hindu radicals due to the legal ambiguity within the laws themselves. Often, these laws provide an easy justification for radicals to attack Christian leaders with impunity. One simply needs to claim that a pastor was forcefully converting people following an assault. As a result, instead of the pastor's assailants being arrested, it's the assailed pastor who is arrested by police following an attack.
'With attacks on Christians skyrocketing, the adoption of a law that would only incite more violence seems to be another step away from religious freedom for all in India.'
Dr John Dayal, spokesman for the United Christian Forum and the All India Catholic Union, told Morning Star News that enacting the anti-conversion law was driven by the ruling group's communal agenda.
'There is no forcible or fraudulent conversion in the state to the Christian or Muslim or Sikh faiths shown either by the Census data or by the police statistics,' he said. 'In the absence of such reality, the only explanation can be that it is to threaten the minority communities or to curb the freedom of religion of the Dalit and backward communities whose rights are being crushed by the upper castes which exercise political power in the state.'
Other states with anti-conversion laws are Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand.