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BJP ups ante for ‘tough’ anti-conversion law

Legislature panel seeks report on Christian places of worship

The ruling BJP seems to be preparing ground for a “tough anti-conversion law” over alleged “forced conversions” in the State. The Legislature Committee on the Welfare of Backward Classes and Minorities has asked for a report on churches and missionaries, “both legal and illegal” in the State to check “forced conversion”.

However, the proposed survey by the Minorities Welfare Department has been opposed by the Congress and heads of the Christian community on the ground that it is veiled targeting of the community.

This comes in the wake of a string of at least four instances where activists associated with Hindutva organisations have barged into prayer halls claiming to have unearthed “forced conversion rackets” in Udupi, Bengaluru, and Chickballapur in the last month alone. Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai recently asserted that a “tough anti-conversion law” is on the anvil.

Multiple BJP-ruled States – Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat – have enacted similar laws in the last one year. Karnataka enacted a stringent anti-cow slaughter ban in February, 2021, taking a cue from Uttar Pradesh, but had so far bucked the trend on anti-conversion law and population policy. However, sources in the BJP said the government may soon bring a “tough law to check forced conversions”.

The conversation around “forced conversions” regained momentum in September when Goolihatti Shekhar, BJP MLA, complained in the Assembly that his mother was allegedly converted by force to Christianity. Incidentally, he chaired the Legislature Committee meeting on October 13, issuing directions for the survey. “There is a mushrooming of prayer halls, Bible societies often in homes that are centres for conversion. The Karnataka police told us that there have been 36 cases of alleged forced conversion under probe. We have now sought a report on all such establishments. We will recommend to the government to enact a tough anti-conversion law,” Mr. Shekhar told The Hindu.

However, Congress members of the Legislature Committee opposed the move. “We said the committee had no jurisdiction to order such a survey, but BJP members went ahead anyway. It seemed pre-decided. Mr. Shekhar has conveniently become the face of this campaign. The party is raising the bogey of forced conversions to use it as a dog whistle to polarise society,” said P.R. Ramesh, Congress MLC, who was part of the meeting.

Archbishop’s concerns

Rev. Peter Machado, Archbishop of Bangalore, in a statement issued on Friday, expressed concern. “In the background of the conversion bogey and anti-religious feelings that are being whipped up, it is dangerous to make such surveys. With this, our community places of worship as also pastors and sisters will be identified and may be unfairly targeted. We are already hearing of such sporadic incidents in Karnataka….Further laws will only be tools in the hands of a few to hound and persecute the innocent,” he said. Reminding that the Constitution had guaranteed rights to profess, propagate and practice his/her religion, he questioned the need of an anti-conversion law given enough safeguards have been enshrined in the Constitution.

He asked the government to instead survey education and health institutions run by the community “to get an idea of the service rendered towards nation building” and also posed if there was “indiscriminate conversion” at these institutions and if so why the population share of the community was reducing regularly compared to other communities.

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