December 26, 2021

Karnataka Bill: Attack on Religious Minorities

THE Karnataka anti-conversion bill passed by the legislative assembly is a direct attack on the rights of religious minorities and religious freedom. Such laws have been passed in other BJP-ruled states like Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and earlier in Gujarat.  Though named as `Freedom of Religion Act’, these laws do the opposite of curbing the fundamental right provided in Article 25 of the constitution to “freely profess, practice and propagate religion”. 

The `Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill’ follows the pattern set by similar laws passed in other BJP-ruled states.  The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act of 2003 was adopted during the Narendra Modi state government and this law has taken away the freedom to convert and prohibit interfaith marriages.  The Karnataka bill provides for three to five years imprisonment for forced conversions; however, if such a forced conversion takes place with a minor, woman, or an SC/ST person, then the jail term will be from three to ten years.

The bill has come in the background of widespread attacks on Christians and their places of worship in the state. According to a report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), on “Hate Crimes against Christians in Karnataka”, from January to November this year, there were 39 incidents of attacks on Christian places of worship and congregations. All these attacks by various RSS outfits were attributed to efforts at conversion, a charge found false in all the cases. The falsity of the sangh propaganda about conversions to Christianity is obvious when it is seen that the Christians in Karnataka constitute only 1.87 per cent of the population, according to the 2011 Census, and this too was a decline compared to the 2001 census figure of 1.9 per cent.

If the bill becomes law, then it will be a constant threat to the Christians, as along with vigilante actions against places of worship, the law can be invoked by a compliant administration to target and penalise normal religious activities.

The bill provides for more stringent punishment for forced conversion of SC/STs, like the legislations in other BJP-ruled states. This reflects the long-held RSS fear that the poor dalits and adivasis are easy prey to the allurements offered to convert. The RSS cannot ever accept that the conversion by dalits and adivasis to Christianity or Islam stemmed from their oppressed caste status and their quest to acquire dignity and social acceptance.

The campaign against “forced conversions” has been part of the main agenda of the RSS since its inception. In fact, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad was formed to bring the converted back into the fold of Hinduism. The RSS has been conducting a systematic campaign for `ghar wapsi’ (home coming) since the Modi government took office in 2014.  Recently, the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, justified ghar wapsi by claiming that it is “to bring back our brothers who lost their way”.  By the RSS logic, ghar wapsi is not “conversion” but a return of a person to their ancestral religion.  That is why the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act (2018) legitimised ghar wapsi by stating that any person “coming back to his ancestral religion” shall not be decreed as conversion under the Act.  

The anti-conversion drive is now accompanied by the campaign against `love jihad’, which is meant to stop interfaith marriages and to demonise Muslim youth.  Already Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have passed laws against love jihad.  Even the Karnataka bill will criminalise inter-religious marriage since the definition of forced conversion includes through marriage also. 

The bill was hastily introduced and passed in the legislative assembly. It now needs to be approved by the legislative council, in which the BJP does not have a majority.  If the Congress and the JD(S) unitedly oppose the bill in the council, it can be defeated.  This retrograde bill needs to be stopped.

(December 22, 2021)