Wednesday, May 18, 2022

‘Religious freedom’ interpreted

On May 12,2022 Karnataka became the 10th state in India to implement an anti-conversion statute after the state cabinet promulgated the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill,2021. The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill was passed in the Legislative Assembly in December last year. It is pending passage in the Legislative Council, where the ruling BJP is one short of majority. The almost simultaneous impetus to these laws in various states does not augur well for the religious minorities, who are already suffering the onslaught of rightwing ascendancy in the political sphere. Prior to the Karnataka Bill, there have been state-level “freedom of religion” statutes, known as anti-conversion laws, in nine states – Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand. Odisha was the first state to enact such a law in 1967, followed by Madhya Pradesh in 1968. In the heightened anti-minority environment, there may be other states waiting to follow suit. The innocuous sounding “Right to Freedom of Religion Bill”is anything but such. This bill like all other similar sounding bills, is clearly meant to prevent conversions from Hinduism to any other religion, in particular, to Christianity. Any Hindu who seeks to become a Christian has to face far too many hurdles and harassment from authorities. If he or she crosses the hurdles, the Christian missionary or evangelist who was instrumental, becomes the target. Hypocritically, on the other hand, ‘re-conversion’ from Christianity is permitted as the anti-conversion laws do not speak on the use of fraudulent means, coercion or allurement to achieve ‘re-conversion’ of either Christians, Muslims, animists or pagans to Hinduism. Bajrang Dal and VHP have “reconverted “several hundred Christian Dalits to Hinduism under the ‘Ghar Wapsi”(homecoming) programmes. The rise of muscular Hindutva means anyone not with it, is anti-national. As the political arm of the RSS, the BJP has been pushing for the ‘anti-conversion law’ in states ruled by it. Even Venkaiah Naidu when he was BJP president, had strongly advocated for enactment of anti-conversion laws. There is no central anti-conversion law. This could eventually happen after 2024. While several States have laws that criminalise conversion on the basis of force, fraud or inducement/allurement, the trend has been to include ‘marriage’ as an illegal means of conversion. This is included in the Karnataka religion bill that has made ‘a promise of marriage’ a means of unlawful conversion. It is needless to say that the idea of presuming that a conversion has or is about to take place alongside an inter-faith marriage is patently unconstitutional as it interferes with the right to privacy, marital freedom and freedom of belief. Noted Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde had said that “these laws try to control women, rather than marriage, and assume that the women don’t have any agency of their own”. After BJP won 12 seats in the 2018 polls in Nagaland, the highest among Christian majority states such as Meghalaya(1 seat) and Mizoram(nil), it took Nagaland as example that Naga Christians accept the BJP and its ideology. Not only state BJP but the UDA have to voice out concerns about anti-religious minority acts blatantly taking place. When politics intrude into the realm of religion, it does no good to the country and worse for that particular religion which is being propagated. Religion then becomes the real enemy of religion and the combination of politics and religion only gives birth to communalism, totalitarian extremism, religious terrorism etc.

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