Violence against minorities in India
In spite of a rich tradition and legal framework supportive of freedom of conscience and the right to practice, profess, and propagate the religion of one’s choice, religious minorities in India find themselves frequent victims of religiously motivated violence.
According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, there were over 630 communal incidents in January-October 2015. Communal violence in India registered a rise in incidents by 24%, and related deaths by 65%, in the first five months of 2015.
According to human rights groups, in 2015 there were over 160 incidents where Christians were targeted for their faith, with the highest number of incidents coming from Madhya Pradesh, followed by Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. The cases included physical assaults and threats and intimidation. In some instances, women reported being sexually assaulted and threatened.
In its annual report for 2015, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted that since the 2014 general elections in India, religious minority communities have been subject to ‘derogatory comments by politicians linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’ and ‘numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by Hindu nationalist groups’ such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Allegations of religious conversions
‘Even in the Indian states which have adopted laws on religious conversion there seem to be only few—if any—convictions for conversion by the use of force, inducement, or fraudulent means.
In Orissa, for example, not a single infringement over the past ten years of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967 could be cited or adduced by district officials and senior officials in the State Secretariat.’
One of the primary causes of violence against the minority Christian population is the making of allegations of conversions by force and allurement. In a recent case, members of the Bajrang Dal, a Hindu extremist organisation, caught hold of a pastor and paraded him on a donkey in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh with his head half shaven.
They alleged that the pastor converted a man without his consent. Similarly, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, police arrested 13 people, including a blind couple, on January 14, 2016, for allegedly trying to convert a few residents by offering inducements or using force.
In spite of the absence of credible data to support laws restricting religious conversions in India, there are voices within the government which have called for a national law. In April 2015, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh of the BJP called for a national level anti-conversion law in response to reports of coercive re conversions to Hinduism and various attacks against members of religious communities.
Similar laws have been enacted at the state or province level in Odisha in 1967, Madhya Pradesh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Gujarat (2003), and Himachal Pradesh (2006). Euphemistically titled ‘Freedom of Religion Act’, they are commonly known as anti-conversions laws:
1) In 2002, the Tamil Nadu state assembly passed the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Bill, which was repealed in 2004 after the defeat of the BJP-led coalition.
2) In 2006, the BJP-led government in Rajasthan passed a similar freedom of religion bill. However, assent of the President of India is still pending ten years after the bill was forwarded to him.
3) The BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh also unsuccessfully sought to tighten existing laws the same year.
Effect of the laws
Reports from the various minority communities and human rights agencies reveal that these laws foster hostility against religious minority communities. In several states, prosecutions have been launched under the Freedom of Religion Acts against members of the minority Christian community. There have also been frequent attacks against the community by members of right-wing Hindu groups on the pretext of ‘forcible’ conversions
Basic features of the laws
These laws are very similar in content, and claim to prohibit conversions by force, fraud, and inducement or allurement. The Acts state that no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means, nor shall any person abet any such conversion.
The Acts carry penal provisions and punishments, generally ranging from up to a one-year imprisonment and a fine of up to 5,000 Indian rupees to up to three years imprisonment and a fine of up to 25,000 Indian rupees.
The punishment is more stringent if there is evidence of conversion by force, fraud, or inducement among women, minors, and Dalits (formerly ‘untouchables’ as per India’s caste system), or Tribals. Failure to send notice to or seek permission from the district magistrate before converting or participating in a conversion ceremony also renders one liable for a fine under the Acts.