India’s tribal activists campaign for anti-conversion law

Christian groups claim legislation motivated by BJP ‘vendetta’ against religious minorities in Jharkhand
India’s tribal activists campaign for anti-conversion law

Congress-JMM alliance workers celebrate results projecting an assembly majority in the Jharkhand state election in Ranchi on December 23, 2019.
(Photo: Rajesh Kumar/AFP)

Indigenous activists backed by pro-Hindu groups in India’s Jharkhand state have vowed to step up campaigns in support of the state’s anti-conversion law, amid talk of it being repealed by the new government.

The campaign began amid reports that state’s newly installed secular government plans to repeal the law that criminalizes conversion.

The law was enacted two years ago by the government led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party. A secular coalition in December replaced the BJP government.

“The new government can review the anti-conversion law. But we will not allow it to repeal the law,” said Megha Oraon, leader of the Jharkhand Adivasi Sarna Vikas Samiti, an indigenous group that opposes conversions of tribal people.

The group met Jan. 12 in Ranchi, the capital of the eastern state, vowed to run aggressive campaigns in support of the law in every village.

“We need to be watchful, and if the government takes a step to abolish the law, we will oppose it tooth and nail,” Oraon told the gathering.

“We want the government to implement it stringently in the state,” he said.

Oraon maintained the conversion of tribal people destroys traditions, culture, and age-old practices of their Sarana (animist) religion.

However, the Indian government does not recognize their religion and classifies them as Hindu, the majority religion, in the national census.

Christians, almost all of them tribal people, account for 4.3 percent of Jharkhand’s population, and their growing influence is a major cause of concern for the BJP, which ruled Jharkhand until last month.

Christian groups and opposition parties have consistently maintained that such the anti-conversion law was unnecessary and targeted Christian missionaries who work among the poorest of the poor.

The law criminalizes conversion by use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means. It also stipulates that those wanting to convert must seek government permission. Violators face jail terms and fines. Similar laws already exist in six other states — Madhya Pradesh, Chhattsigarh, Gujarat, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh.

Church’s stand is “very clear from the beginning…that this law is meant to harass us. There is no basis for allegations of forced conversions,” Father Anand David Xalxo, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Ranchi, told UCA News.

Prabhakar Tirkey, president of Rashtriya Isai Mahasangh, a national forum of Christians of all denominations said the Hindu nationalist BJP “enacted the law out of its vendetta towards Christians and other minority groups.”

He said indigenous Sarna Samiti and other groups have the “backing the Hindu nationalist party. Since they began the campaign in support of the law, we will also consider countering their false propaganda.”

 Hindu nationalists misinterpret Christian missionary work such as health care and education as allurement and fraudulent means for conversions. They also accuse missionaries of converting local tribal people to Christianity, said Tirkey himself a tribal.

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