Organisations representing people of indigenous faith in Arunachal Pradesh have expressed apprehension over the BJP-led state government’s move to repeal a 40-year-old anti-conversion law of the state.
Addressing a ceremony organised by the Arunachal Pradesh Catholic Association in Itanagar on June 28, Chief Minister Pema Khandu said they planned to repeal the law as “it could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians”. A press statement quoted him as saying, “The CM assured that it (a Bill to repeal the law) would be brought before the next Assembly session… as it could be misused in future by irresponsible officials… Any misuse of the law leading to torture of people could trigger large-scale violence in the state and could break Arunachal into pieces.”
The ceremony where Khandu said this had been organised to pay tributes to Brother Prem Bhai, a missionary who is said to have faced arrests, been fined and worn disguises to spread Christianity to the frontier state, on his 10th death anniversary. Christian bodies were quick to welcome Khandu’s announcement.
The Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act had been passed in 1978 by the Janata Party-led government of the then Union territory. It says, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any persons abet any such conversion.” It adds that anyone found doing so shall be punishable with imprisonment up to two years and fine up to Rs 10,000.
The Act was seen as a step to check proselytisation in a state with a rapidly growing Christian population. The Census 2011 data shows Christians form the largest chunk of the population of Arunachal now, at 30.26 per cent, followed by Hindus at 29.04 per cent, with only 26.2 per cent of the people in the ‘Other Religions’ category (which comprises the indigenous faiths of the state).
Comparatively, in the 2001 Census data, Christians made up 18.7 per cent of the population, while ‘Other Religions’ were at 30.7 per cent. Hindus led, with 34.6 per cent of the numbers.
The Church and Christians often have dubbed it an “anti-Christian law”, but indigenous faith bodies say the legislation gives them a “safeguard”, which will be lost if it is repealed.
The ruling BJP’s move to repeal the law is being seen as a bid to woo Christians ahead of the state elections due next year. In the 2014 Assembly polls, the Congress vote share was 49.5 per cent and the BJP’s 30.1 per cent — though the BJP later made its way to power in the state.
Ironically, in several other states where it is in power, BJP governments have brought in anti-conversion measures of own. Uttarakhand is the recent example, where a provision against conversion became a law in May. Last year, the BJP-led Jharkhand approved an anti-conversion law, which forbids conversion through allurement or coercion.
In response to the criticism over his announcement, Khandu tweeted Sunday, “Upholding the democratic and secular ethos, the matter (AP Freedom of Religion Act 1978) is neither about politics of vote bank nor intends to hurt any community or any religion. In the spirit of democratic traditions wider consultations will be done on the matter.” About the criticism, state BJP chief Tapir Gao said, “The honourable chief minister is out of the country. When he returns, we will discuss the matter and then comment.”
Among the Christian bodies supporting Khandu’s proposal is the Arunachal Christian Forum. General secretary Toko Teki told The Indian Express, “We welcome the announcement because the law is completely against the principles of secularism and the right to freedom of religion. It should be repealed.”
Teki termed the legislation a “black law” and “anti-Christian” in nature, and said it had only led to harassment of Christians in the state since its imposition.
Opposing Khandu’s proposal, the Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh, which claims to be an umbrella organisation of bodies representing the state’s indigenous faiths, issued a statement saying “loss of culture was loss of identity” and the move would lead to “degradation of the indigenous culture of Arunachal Pradesh”.
“Repealing the law that safeguards the indigenous people would open floodgates of poaching and it would lead to marginalisation of the indigenous people of Arunachal Pradesh,” the statement added.
The Society’s general secretary, Bai Taba, told The Indian Express that if the BJP government went ahead with the move, the state would see protests.
The Nyishi Indigenous Faiths and Cultural Society, a body representing believers of the Nyishi faith, says that over the past four-five decades, around 70 per cent of their members had converted to Christianity. “Conversions are happening (even now) but at least not forcibly or fraudulently. If the law is repealed, the conversion percentage will go up,”the Society’s president Pai Dawe said.
The Galo Indigenous Faith and Cultural Council has opposed the proposal and demanded that the CM withdraw his statement. The chairman of the opposition People’s Party of Arunachal Pradesh, Kamen Ringu, said they would take a decision “after a meeting”.