The Jharkhand Assembly on Saturday passed the anti-conversion Bill brought by the BJP-led government amid demand by opposition parties to send the Bill to a select committee, a demand the government turned down. The Religious Freedom Bill-2017 will now be sent to the Governor, following whose approval it would go to the President for assent. While ruling NDA MLAs hailed it as a legislation that should have been implemented right when Jharkhand became a state, Opposition members pointed out that penal provisions already exist in the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
The Bill has provision for imprisonment of three years and fine of Rs 50,000 or both, and four year- imprisonment and Rs 1 lakh fine, or both, if the person converted is a minor, woman or a member of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe. It also says that a person converting willingly will have to inform the Deputy Commissioner about details such as time, place and the person who administers the conversion proceedings.
Starting the discussion, Stephen Marandi, senior MLA of Opposition Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), requested that the Bill be referred to the select committee. “The Constitution gives freedom to practice and profess one’s religion. There are already penal provisions in IPC for those indulging in coercive conversion or using allurement. So what is the need for a separate Bill,” he asked.
Marandi also said that the provision to inform the Deputy Commissioner before conversion is “fraught with problems…(and can be) misused to harass people. At best, people should have been asked to furnish an affidavit.” Marandi also asked how many cases of forcible conversion have been registered under IPC to merit a new Bill.
Leader of Opposition and acting JMM chief Hemant Soren argued that the Bill should be passed only after a considered discussion, as it is a “matter of communal harmony”.
Congress MLA Irfan Ansari said the government has showed that its focus has changed from development to another agenda, and alleged that the BJP wants to create a rift between all communities. Ansari and some other Opposition MLAs reminded the treasury benches repeatedly that the government had to beat a retreat on the issue of amendments in the Tenancy Act. The government was forced to take back the Bill this session after the Governor returned it.
BJP chief whip Radha Krishna Kishore pointed at the demographic change in the state in the last couple of decades. “In 2001, Christian population (in Jharkhand) was 10,93,380. In 2011 census, this was 14,18,608 — an increase of around 30 per cent,” he said. “And who are the people being converted? The poor, the Dalit and the tribal population living in interior areas.”
He alleged that in many cases children’s names are struck off schools run by the missionaries if they do not agree to convert. BJP MLA Shiv Shanker Oraon said: “The Bill is the inner voice of the Sanatan Dharmi-prakriti Dharmi, which should have been heard since Jharkhand came into being.”