The Raghubar Das Cabinet in BJP-led Jharkhand on Tuesday approved the draft anti-conversion Bill that forbids religious conversion through allurement or coercion and has penal provisions. Provisions in the Religious Freedom Bill 2017 carry jail term of three years and/or fine of Rs 50,000 for anyone found guilty of converting people by alluring or forcing them.
“Section 3 of the Bill provides for punitive action…. If the person being converted is a minor girl belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe community, the punishment will go up from three years to four years, and the fine from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh (either or both),” an official said after the Cabinet meeting wound up. The Bill is set to be brought in the Assembly in the monsoon session, which starts later this month.
As and when it is passed, and becomes a law, the Act is likely to intensify confrontation between the BJP and its allied organisations on one side and the Church on the other. The two sides have been at loggerheads since the proposed tenancy Act amendments were introduced through a Bill last year. The state government was forced to reconsider it after the Governor returned it without assent.
The BJP had then alleged that the Church was responsible for the protests in the state, which, the ruling party claimed, created a negative atmosphere on the proposed changes. The Church had petitioned the Governor against the proposed amendments. Those converting willingly will have to inform the district administration, giving details such as time, place and reason for conversion, among others, or they are liable to face action, according to the draft law.
Among other states where such a legislation has been brought into effect are Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The BJP has constantly demanded an anti-conversion Bill. On Tuesday, the party’s state spokesperson Pratul Shahdev said, “Forces out to disintegrate the society are indulging in conversions for long. It is good that the Bill envisages tougher punishment for those involved.”
The office of the Archbishop, Ranchi, refused to comment on the move, saying they are yet to study the details. But sources claimed that as and when the Bill is passed, right-wing organisations would be in trouble, as they have been trying to portray Sarna followers (who follow their own traditional religion) as Hindus. Welcoming the development, a member of the Sarna committee said this was among one of their demands. “We had petitioned the government for this. We welcome it, but we also need to study it,” he said.
Along with the anti-conversion Bill, Sarna followers also demand a separate ‘religion code’ for them, so that they can be enumerated as a separate faith — and not bracketed under “OR”, or “Other Religions” head.
Alleged conversion by the Church and its functionaries, either through coercion or allurement, has been a major plank for the BJP and allied right-wing Hindutva organisations. Christian organisations claim that right-wing Hindutva organisations are trying to bring tribals, who are not Hindus, within the fold of Hinduism.