Indian Christians chary of state's plan to toughen anti-conversion law

(Photo: © Peter Kenny)Campaign to stop violence against Christians in India on square in front of United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on June 23, 2021 during a session of the UN Human Rights Council.

The pro-Hindu government in India's central Chhattisgarh state is moving to fortify its anti-conversion laws with upcoming polls on the horizon, Catholic Bishop Paul Toppo is warning.

The provincial government in the state has announced plans to add strengthen its sweeping anti-conversion law, which is often used to target Christians in the country, UCA News reported on Feb. 19.

The proposed bill by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Chhattisgarh requires individuals seeking to convert to another religion to apply at least 60 days in advance to the district magistrate.

A person who wishes to convert to another religion will have to fill a form with personal details at least 60 days in advance and submit it to the District Magistrate.

The magistrate will then ask the police to assess the "real intention, reason, and purpose," The Indian Express reported.

It said the new Bill was set to be introduced in the Chhattisgarh Assembly in the coming days.

A person who performs the conversion ceremony will similarly have to fill out a form at least a month in advance.

The draft also states that conversion "cannot be done from one religion to another by the use or practice of abuse, force, undue influence, coercion, inducement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage."

The Indian Express report noted that over the last few years, when the Congress was in power in the state, it saw several instances of tribals who had converted to Christianity being attacked in districts such as Kondagaon and Narayanpur.

In the run-up to the assembly polls, the BJP had made conversions an electoral issue.

The new Bill provides for a a minimum of two years and maximum of 10 years in jail to those, who illegally convert minors, "scheduled castes and scheduled tribes," reported the Deccan Chronicle.

"The draft legislation christened Chhattisgarh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Bill, also provides that for mass conversion, the punishment will be a minimum of three years and a maximum of 10 years."

UCA News reported that mass conversion is punishable by a minimum of three years and a maximum of 10 years, along with a fine of 50,000 rupees ($602).

The proposed law, however, would not apply to those who want to convert back to their previous religion.

"The state already has an ant-conversion law. So, why do we need another bill?" asked Bishop Paul Toppo of Raigarh diocese based in the state.

He told UCA News on Feb. 19 that the move raises suspicion of a hidden agenda because the country is scheduled to host a general election around April-May.

"There is no doubt that the proposed bill is to target minority communities like Christians and Muslims," he noted.

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