Karnataka 'anti-conversion Bill'

Karnataka Legislative Assembly passes anti-conversion Bill amid criticism

Print edition : January 28, 2022

Members of the Christian community protesting against the “anti-conversion Bill”, in Bengaluru on December 22, 2021. Photo: MURALI KUMAR K

Devotees arguing with a group of Bajrang Dal activists who allegedly disrupted a prayer at Belur on November 29, 2021. Photo: By SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

At a rally against the “anti-conversion Bill” in Bengaluru on December 22, 2021. Photo: MURALI KUMAR K

Basavaraj Bommai, Chief Minister. His remark that moral policing was a “reaction” seem to have emboldened Hindutva vigilantes. Photo: MURALI KUMAR K

Siddaramiah, former Chief Minister. He said the anti-conversion law would be rescinded when the Congress came to power. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Goolihatti Shekhar, the BJP MLA from Hosadurga in Chitradurga district. He accused Christian missionaries of widespread religious conversions in his region. Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

Karnataka’s Lower House passes the Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, but critics say the BJP government is using conversion as a ruse to push through the regressive legislation.

The Karnataka Legislative Assembly, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a majority, passed the controversial ‘Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill’ on December 23, 2021, by voice vote amid protests from members of opposition parties. The lofty title of the proposed law is ironic; the Bill is designed to restrict a person’s ‘freedom of religion’ rather than protect it. Since political discussions on the proposed law began a few months ago in Karnataka, it is being referred to popularly as the ‘anti-conversion’ law. This short title captures the intention of the Bill far more lucidly as its primary aim is to deter religious conversions.

The passage of the anti-conversion Bill in the Lower House was preceded by a surge in attacks on religious minorities in Karnataka, particularly on the Christian community, by Hindutva vigilantes accusing them of converting Hindus ‘forcefully’ and thus building up public opinion in favour of the law. On the basis of vague allegations of ‘forced conversions’, a consensus was built justifying the need for the law, but BJP members who pushed forward with the Bill in spite of the massive protests throughout Karnataka have not provided any evidence of ‘forced conversion’ that has taken place.

The anti-conversion Bill in Karnataka is similar to laws passed in several States when they were or are being ruled by the BJP such as Gujarat (2021), Madhya Pradesh (2021), Uttar Pradesh (2021), Himachal Pradesh (2019), Uttarakhand (2018), Jharkhand (2017), Rajasthan (2006) and Chhattisgarh (2006).

Provisions of the Bill

The Karnataka Bill prohibits the conversion of a person from one religion to another “by use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage, nor shall any person abet or conspire for conversions”. Strangely, the Bill makes an exemption for someone who “reconverts to his immediate previous religion” as “the same shall not be deemed conversion under this Act”. The Bill also states that “any converted person, his parents, brother, sister or any other person who is related to him by blood, marriage or adoption or in any form associated or colleague may lodge a complaint” regarding conversions.

Also read: Karnataka’s role in creating the trope of love jehad

A person convicted of wrongful conversion can be jailed for three to five years along with a fine of Rs.25,000, while in cases of wrongful conversions of minors, women or persons from the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes the jail term can go up to 10 years and a fine of Rs.50,000. The fine goes up to Rs.1 lakh if there is wrongful ‘mass conversion’, which is defined as conversion of two or more persons.

‘Love jehad’

The bogey of ‘love jehad’ is also addressed in the Bill, which states that “marriage done for [the] sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice versa is to be declared null and void”. According to the Bill, the person converting should intimate the district authorities of his or her intention two months in advance and they will conduct an inquiry. Once the person converts, he or she has to appear before the district magistrate within a month to confirm their identity, failing which the conversion will be declared null and void.

MLA’s allegation

While members of the BJP and wider Sangh Parivar organs such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal in Karnataka have consistently demanded an anti-conversion law, the pitch suddenly increased in the past few months after Goolihatti Shekhar, a BJP Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Hosadurga in Chitradurga district, accused Christian missionaries of widespread religious conversions in his region. In a statement on the floor of the Assembly in September, Shekhar stated: “They [Christian missionaries] have got as many as 18,000 to 20,000 people converted to Christianity from the Hindu religion. The Christian missionaries have even converted my mother and she has been told not to wear ‘kumkum’ on her forehead.” This charge marked the beginning of the move that led to the passage of the anti-conversion Bill, but an inquiry conducted by the district authorities in Chitradurga following Shekhar’s speech revealed that only 45 persons had converted to Christianity in Hosadurga.

Subsequently, in October, two orders for conducting surveys on “forced conversions” were issued: the first by a House Committee of the Assembly on Backward Classes and Minorities and the second by the Intelligence Department of the Karnataka Police. These orders were issued even as Hindutva vigilantes continued to disrupt prayer services in churches across Karnataka.

Also read: ‘Love jehad a propaganda for electoral dividends’

In an interview in early December, Peter Machado, the Archbishop of Bengaluru, accused the government of going easy on these attacks: “The government is tolerating vigilante attacks. While we [the Christian community] have been protesting continuously against the anti-conversion law, it is a losing battle in Karnataka because the party in power seems to be in favour of the law. After the Act is implemented, it will be a licence for violence against Christians by all kinds of hooligans.”

PUCL’s report

According to a report published by the Karnataka chapter of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), 39 incidents of hate crimes against Christians have occurred in Karnataka between January and November 2021. The report states: “In most cases, Christians have been forced to shut down their places of worship and stop assembling for their Sunday prayers. Effectively, these attacks on praying in a gathering that is enforced by Hindutva groups with the complicity of the State functions as a bar on the freedom to practice religion itself. Far from the right to propagate religion, today the attacks in Karnataka are actually on the right to freely profess and practice religion…. The perpetrators behind these communal hate crimes in all the 39 instances are Hindutva organisations, namely Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Jagrana Vedike.”

Shujayathulla, the president of PUCL-Karnataka, said, “The population of Christians in Karnataka declined marginally between 2001 and 2011 from 1.9 per cent to 1.87 per cent [according to Census of India figures]. If there are forced conversions taking place as the BJP claims, the Christian population should be increasing, but this is just a ruse to bring in this regressive Act.”

Pastor Lucas Navathi, a Chikkaballapur-based Dalit convert to Christianity who contributed to the PUCL report, said, “Attacks on churches by Hindutva elements have become routine during Sunday worship and the worst part is that the police are foisting cases on pastors. Cases are being continuously filed against Christians who are the real victims, and at the village level, members of the Christian community are harassed and face social boycott because of these attacks.”

A visible trend

A trend visible in these attacks is that they have occurred all over Karnataka and are not restricted to the Sangh Parivar hotspot of coastal Karnataka. Noting this fact, B.T. Venkatesh, a Bengaluru-based lawyer, said, “These kinds of attacks were pronounced in coastal Karnataka, but now they are happening all over the State. This is becoming the new normal.”

The spate of attacks on churches in Karnataka in 2021 comes 13 years after a series of attacks on churches in coastal Karnataka in 2008. Ironically, as Machado pointed out, Chief Minister Basavraj Bommai, who had just joined the BJP then, had vehemently condemned the attacks, but “his attitude has changed in the last 12-13 years”.

Also read: The myth of love jehad

Vidya Dinker, a Mangaluru-based civil society activist who has taken on the vigilante activities of Hindutva elements in coastal Karnataka, said that “they [the BJP] want to spread the social segregation seen in coastal Karnataka all over the State. If this Act comes through, the vigilantes can enter anyone’s house. They have used this bogey in the case of ‘love jehad’. There is a parallel [Hindutva] government structure in place in coastal Karnataka that is really difficult to challenge, and now, with this Act, they want it all over Karnataka.” Speaking to the activists, one gets the impression that the Hindutva vigilantes, who have already been emboldened by Bommai’s callous remark that moral policing was a “reaction” (‘The BJP’s devious game plan in Karnataka’, Frontline, November 19, 2021), will become more vicious in their attacks on religious minority communities after the passage of the anti-conversion law.

Venkatesh went on to say that the anti-conversion law was against the constitutional principle of freedom of religion and that he would “challenge in it in the High Court as soon as it is passed”. Arvind Narrain, a lawyer and researcher working with Alternative Law Forum, also made this point. In a recent article, he wrote: “The ironically titled Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, is rife with unconstitutional implications. The Bill is not meant to protect the freedom of religion but rather to limit it in a way not contemplated by the drafters of the Indian Constitution.”

The Bill is yet to be passed in the Karnataka Legislative Council (KLC). The BJP does not have a majority in the KLC and its attempt to pass the Bill on the last day of the Belagavi winter session on December 24 last year was stymied when opposition members stayed put until the end of the day to ensure that the Bill would not be introduced in their absence. The passage of the Bill in the next legislative session will be easier for the BJP as the numbers will be in the saffron party’s favour by then. The BJP will have 37 members in the 75-member Legislative Council when the next session convenes, while the Congress will have 26 and the Janata Dal (Secular) 11 MLCs, and there will be one independent member.

Home Minister Araga Jnanendra has stated that the Bill will be promulgated via an ordinance, which means that it could come into effect even before the next session of the legislature. Jnanendra has also emphasised often that persons belonging to certain castes who got benefits while they remained within the purview of Hinduism would lose those benefits once they converted. In an interview, he said, “Those who convert will lose the connection with their parent religion and caste. And whatever government benefits were there for the person before the conversion will be lost. They will be termed ‘Minorities’ if they convert to Christianity or Islam.”

How political parties reacted

Senior members of the Congress, such as Siddaramaiah, former Chief Minister, and D.K. Shivakumar, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president, have stated that their party stands staunchly against the Bill. Shivakumar tore up the draft copy of the Bill when it was introduced in the Assembly. The Janata Dal (Secular) opposed the passage of the Bill in the Assembly, with its leader H.D. Kumaraswamy stating that his party would oppose the Bill in both Houses.

Siddaramaiah said that the anti-conversion law would be rescinded when the Congress came to power. In a statement, he said, “The Congress will scrap the anti-conversion Bill within a week of the party coming to power or in the first session of the State Legislature after coming to power. There is no doubt about it.”

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