Another state in India has passed an anti-conversion law amid growing violence from Hindu extremists.
‘As India’s election process gathers momentum Release International is seeing record numbers of attacks against Christians and other minorities,’ warns CEO Paul Robinson.
‘This new law will deny the poorest of the poor in India the right to choose their faith. We call on India to protect the rights and religious freedoms of all its citizens under its constitution.’
Haryana has become the 10th state in India to pass an anti-conversion law limiting the freedom of Christians to share their faith and the right of Hindus to convert freely. A similar Bill is poised for final approval in another state, Karnataka.
Haryana’s chief minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, said the law was intended to instil fear in the minds of perpetrators.
‘There has been a gradual shutdown of house churches in the region through threats and violence,’ a Haryana pastor told International Christian Concern.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he added: ‘The new law will be one more step to validate what they have been doing to Christians. The law can be misused to target innocent Christians.’
As religious nationalism has taken hold across India there has been a marked increase in attacks against the country’s Christian minority. In 2021 there were 486 instances of violence and harassment against Christians – a rise of 74 per cent, according to a report by the United Christian Forum (UCF).
The UCF described 2021 as the ‘most violent year for Christians’ in India.
Amid concerns over rising tensions in Haryana, opposition Congress members staged a walkout of the Legislative Assembly on March 22 in protest at the Bill.
Congress MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) Kiran Choudhry described the anti-conversion measure as ‘Draconian’. She said its passing would go down as a ‘black day in the history of Haryana [that] will deepen the communal divide.’
She added the Bill was in violation of the Indian constitution, ‘which gives the right to profess… practise… and propagate your religion.’
Describing the Bill as a ‘complete invasion’ of personal freedom’, Ms Choudhry warned: ‘The state should never interfere in the personal domain of an individual and in those rights guaranteed to us under the… constitution.’
But far from dropping the measure, the BJP government actually tightened the law. It added a clause to punish anyone attempting to convert minors, women and persons belonging to scheduled castes and tribes.
‘This law will impact the work of Christians among the Dalit underclass,’ warns Paul Robinson, CEO of the UK charity Release International which supports persecuted Christians. ‘It will also attempt to deny Dalits the opportunity to become Christians.
‘Within Indian society, the so-called untouchables are often regarded as sub-humans and fit only to carry out the most menial of tasks. Unsurprisingly, many have been responding to the Christian message of God’s love, that Christ came for people from all backgrounds, and laid down his life for them.
‘Force and allurement’
‘On the face of it, the wording of the Bill may appear reasonable: it seeks to “prohibit religious conversions… through misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means, or by marriage.”
‘But in practice anyone preaching heaven or hell could run foul of the law,’ adds Paul Robinson, ‘and the performing of any kind of charitable work or the giving of relief aid could be interpreted as allurement.’
The main target of the law is the attempted conversion of Hindus by Muslims through so-called Love Jihad – the taking of Hindu girls and forcing them to marry Muslims, thereby becoming Muslims and going on to raise Muslim children.
Such claims are controversial and often denied by Muslims. ‘But in practise, the law will also target Christians and deny all Indians their constitutional rights,’ says Paul Robinson.
Under the law, anyone accused will have to prove their innocence – rather than be assumed innocent until proven guilty.
The penalty for breaking the state anti-conversion law will be between one- and five-years’ imprisonment and a substantial fine of 100,000 rupees.
Upwards of 40 per cent of India’s Christians are said to come from a Dalit background. There are more than 200 million Dalits in India. The name means literally ‘broken’ or ‘scattered’. The movement of Dalits towards Christianity began in the 19th century as many sought to escape caste persecution. It continues today.
One Release International partner ‘Neeraj’ describes why he changed his religion to become a Christian. ‘I constantly used to hear my mother saying we were untouchables – sub-human was the word she used – that we were not human beings.
‘Hinduism says there are 330 million gods, but none of these died for a sinner like me. It was only Jesus. It is he who gives me hope. I was told I was created to be less than an animal, but it is Jesus who says, “No, I created you in my image.” That’s why I love Jesus.
‘Christianity gives value to human beings. There is a dignity in the gospel, and that’s what every Dalit longs to hear. He wants to be treated as a human being.’
So the conversion of Dalits to Christianity, coupled with distrust towards the country’s sizeable Muslim minority is unsettling India’s sense of religious and national identity and leading to a Hindu backlash.
That rising tide of religious nationalism is set to confirm the BJP in power in the forthcoming elections, which in turn will deepen the religious divide.
In March, the Hindu nationalist BJP was returned in Uttar Pradesh with a resounding mandate from the state’s 150 million voters.
The BBC reported: ‘Hindu voters… have again backed the BJP to the hilt. For a sub-national election, the results in Uttar Pradesh have significant implications for Indian politics. This win tightens the BJP’s grip on power, deflates a splintered opposition and places the party well ahead in the race to win a third term in the 2024 parliamentary election.’
‘Release International has observed a rise in violence against Christians since the BJP took power in 2014,’ says Paul Robinson. ‘The movement reflects growing Hindu nationalism and a corresponding intolerance towards religious minorities.’
A recent BBC report into the Indian elections found some ultra-nationalist campaigners framing the contest in the following terms: ‘This isn’t an election. It’s a religious war.’
The speaker was a member of the right-wing Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) who was campaigning for the BJP.
A video posted on Twitter showed saffron-robed members of HYV with their arms outstretched, taking an oath. They pledged to: ‘Make India a Hindu nation, keep it a Hindu-only nation.’
And they continued: ‘We will fight and die and if required, we will kill as well… our goddess Mother India, our ancestors, give us power, give us victory. Hail Mother India.’
The election campaigner from the HYV told the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent: ‘We’re confident that our dream of a Hindu nation will soon be realised.’
‘How much violence would it take for India to become a Hindu-only nation?’ asks Paul Robinson of Release International. ‘There is growing concern as that violence continues to rise.’
More than 104 violent incidents were recorded in the last two months alone, with attacks on Christians and their places of worship, according to the UCF, a rights body that maintains a database of violence and intimidation in India.
That rise is being noted in the international media. According to an op-ed in Eurasia Review: ‘Hate crimes against Christians increased by 40 per cent in 2021. Violence against Christians is increasing at an alarming rate [including] murder, rape, arson, intimidation and vandalism.’
One of the key powerbases of the BJP is Uttar Pradesh, the state described by UCF as most hostile towards Christians. According to Eurasia Review there have been 80 attacks against Christians so far this year in Uttar Pradesh alone. ‘These attacks are coming from the radical parties, including BJP and its affiliates, the RSS, Bajrang Dal, VHP etc.’
These extremists often portray Christian missionaries as part of an international conspiracy against India. They have called for every missionary to be expelled from the country.
Despite the overwhelming domination of the Hindu religion, advocates of anti-conversion laws make the claim that Hinduism could disappear from India. The demographics would indicate that is unlikely anytime soon.
India has a population of 1.3 billion. According to the 2021 Indian census the overwhelming majority are Hindus – around 966 million. Muslims make up the largest religious minority at 172 million, while estimates vary as to the number of Christians.
The official figure is 28 million, but some observers put the number as high as 65 million. Even so, Hindus continue to make up some 80 per cent of the population.
Reconversion programmes (Ghar Wapsi) have been launched to turn lower caste Hindus back to Hinduism. And the anti-conversion laws are intended to deter those who are doing the converting.
A state coordinator of Bajrang Dal has warned: ‘Whoever attempts to convert Hindus should be in fear of Bajrang Dal. Bajrang Dal was created for this very purpose.’
Some Hindu radicals are trying to revive long-standing calls for a national anti-conversion law.
The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) has warned: ‘Activists fear the… anti-conversion laws bring a step closer the BJP’s manifesto promising a nationwide law to check evangelisation by missionaries.’
‘India is the world’s largest democracy,’ says Paul Robinson of Release International. ‘Yet these laws which find the accused guilty until proven innocent and that deny constitutional rights to the country’s citizens are profoundly anti-democratic.
‘We call on India to stop this headlong march towards intolerance and urge the international community to help this vital nation back on the path towards freedom.’
Release International is active in around 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs, prisoners of faith and their families, as well as Christians suffering oppression and violence, and Christians forced to flee.