Expanding anti-conversion laws in India mean that Christians are increasingly being targeted and harassed by Hindu extremists who seek to abuse this legislature.
On the face of it, you might not think there’s anything wrong with India’s growing anti-conversion laws. Of course, forced conversion should be prevented. In practice, though, these laws are vaguely worded and widely abused – meaning that their recent expansion is bad news for Christians in India.
New versions of anti-conversion laws were passed in Madya Pradesh on 8 March and Utter Pradesh a couple of weeks earlier – these laws are additions to the growing number of similar legislations that restrict the rights of Christian and Muslim minorities in many Indian states.
“These new laws are harsher than their previous versions, increasing the amount of money offenders have to pay and lengthening jail time,” says a local Open Doors partner, Heena (name changed for security reasons). “These laws are problematic for many reasons, but one glaring reason is because they're incredibly vague. They use words like ‘allurement’ or ‘coercion’ as things they say they're trying to protect against, but they don’t define what those mean.”
Because ‘allurement’ isn’t defined, the laws can be loosely interpreted and used to target Christians who are telling others the good news of Jesus. While relatively few convictions take place under anti-conversion laws, they are often used to persecute Christians, including new believers, and can take years to come to a conclusion.
“In practice, the laws are used to intimidate and restrict even the peaceful exercise of religion for non-Hindus,” adds Heena. “They create a culture of intolerance towards religious minorities – Christian and Muslims specifically.”
In Madhya Pradesh’s and Uttar Pradesh’s new bills, the possible penalties include up to ten years in prison and a minimum fine of 50,000 rupees. This is more than 1.5 times the average monthly wage in India, and Christians are often from the Dalit caste and other low-earning levels of Indian society. These are significant increases in the jail time and financial penalty under the previous version of the laws.
Similar anti-conversion laws exist in Uttrakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. On 18 February 2021, Haryana’s Home Minister, Anil Vij, told the media that he had instructed state officials to prepare a draft of an anti-conversion law.
“The anti-conversion law is just another tool in the toolbox that extremists use to instil fear in Christians,” says Heena. “Even if it’s not a national law, extremists still treat it like it is. What happens now is just that the anti-conversion laws give just one more string to hold, just one more tool to misuse against believers. It’s part of a whole.”
Tellingly, the laws do not apply if an Indian ‘re-converts’ to Hinduism. There is far more evidence or family or community members forcing Christians or Muslims from a Hindu background to ‘re-convert’ than there is of forced Christian conversion – but it is not an offence. In the eyes of Indian lawmakers, it is a return to the religion of the fatherland. Even coerced conversions to Hinduism are apparently considered something to celebrate.
Christians who try to obey the letter of the law seldom have success. Anti-conversion laws supposedly make provision for genuine conversions – but new believers who seek a formal change in their religious identity have to secure legal validation from state officials. These applications are often rejected – for instance, in Gujarat State, 70 per cent of applications were declined.
“This is really telling,” says Heena. “People trying to comply with these really onerous restrictions are still being denied. You expose yourself to the government, submit that you chose your faith freely, and then the government still says no.”
Heena is also worried about the impact of these laws on the church – specifically, relating to violent attacks. “These laws have made the church in India more vulnerable,” she says. “Because of this set of laws, people just barge into churches and the churches live in fear.
“There are so many instances where churches have gathered, and angry mobs have broken in and they chased the Christians out of the community. We’ve heard of cases where three or four families have been living out of their own village because of fear. Pronouncing they are Christians now affects their whole life. Professing the fact that you believe in Jesus is so risky.”
In spite of this, courageous believers in India are remaining faithful. Heena adds: “They say what they have found in Jesus is what they’ve been searching for all their lives. They say that they can’t leave Jesus. I haven’t met anyone who has wanted to deny Christ!”
Local Open Doors partners are standing with persecuted believers, helping them understand the laws and why they do not deserve to be attacked – as well as continuing to provide emergency aid (particularly during the pandemic), persecution survival training, Bibles, livelihood and community development, advocacy support and legal training.
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