CSW is calling for the repeal of the newly promulgated ‘Freedom of Religion Ordinance 2020’ in the state of Madhya Pradesh, which expands the scope of criminalising conversion and has already been used to target Christians in the state.
On 27 January, a prayer meeting in the village of Bagholi, Balaghat District was interrupted by mob of approximately 40 people who accused the Christians there of “alluring” people to convert to Christianity. The police escorted five Christians to the police station for interrogation, while the remaining Christians were locked inside the prayer meeting hall.
According to a local source, a mob of about 200 gathered at the police station calling for action to be taken against the Christians. Three pastors remain in prison and have had First Information Reports (FIRs) registered against them under the new Ordinance.
On 7 January, Madhya Pradesh state, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in the majority, replaced the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantra Adhinniyam, a 1968 law on religious conversion, with the ‘The Freedom of Religion Ordinance 2020.’ The new law imposes strict penalties and expands the scope of criminalising ‘conversion.’
The stated objective of the Ordinance is “to provide freedom of religion by prohibiting conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, allurement, use of threat or force, undue influence, coercion, marriage or any fraudulent means.” However, there are concerns that like similar laws in other Indian states, it is used to target religious minorities with false accusations of forced conversion and miscast conversion as an act perpetrated on a person by another rather than an act of free will.
In addition to the crackdown on the prayer meeting in Bagholi, CSW has received reports of several other incidents in which Christians have been targeted under the new Ordinance.
On 13 January, a prayer meeting in the home of Ashoke Yadav in the village of Kurai, Seoni District was interrupted after an unidentified person in the neighbourhood complained to the police that there had been an attempt to convert him. A local source confirmed that the police detained 20 people who attended the meeting, which included 15 women and four children. An FIR was registered against two Christians under Sections 3 and 4 of the Ordinance. They were granted bail on 18 January.
On 26 January, in Stayaprakashan Sanchar Kendra, Indrapuri colony, Indore, a prayer meeting was interrupted by members of the militant Hindu nationalist youth movement known as Bajrang Dal. The perpetrators destroyed church furniture and music equipment while chanting “Jai Sri Ram” (translation: ‘Long live Shri Ram’, a Hindu deity). According to a local source, a 24 year-old woman had lodged a complaint, claiming that her parents tried to convert her at the meeting. This led to the arrest of 11 people who remain in prison, with charges registered under Sections 3 and 5 of the Ordinance.
In recent months, similar Ordinances have been introduced in other BJP -dominated states including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Karnataka. In Uttar Pradesh, a local monitoring group has recorded at least 17 cases, 14 of which relate to inter-religious marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men, under this Ordinance.
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “These so-called ‘Freedom of religion’ laws are in fact curbing people’s freedom to choose their religion or belief. They also contradict the national constitution of India, which guarantees freedom of religion or belief, and are being weaponised by religious fundamentalists to instigate fabricated charges against and create fear within India’s Muslim and Christian communities. No one is being held to account for this or for the fact that the BJP is politicising religious conversion, with the aim of making it illegal. We call for the immediate repeal of these laws, and urge investigating authorities to be more circumspect in handling allegations made under their provisions, given that they are open to abuse.”
Note to Editors:
1. Click here for an explanation of Sections 3, 4 and 5 of the Ordinance.