Ahead of parliamentary elections in Karnataka, BJP focuses on pro-Hindutva legislation

KARNATAKA BECAME THE The ninth state in the country to introduce a bill to make forced conversion an acquaintance and non-bondable offense. The “Karnataka Religious Freedom Right Protection Bill, 2021” was adopted by the assembly at the recently concluded winter session in Belagavi on 23 December. However, the bill must be passed by the legislative council. The ruling BJP decided not to table the bill until the next session because it lacks a majority in the 75-member upper house.

While many BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have enacted laws to curb forced conversions, the criminal provisions of the Karnataka Bill are stricter.

The bill tabled by Interior Minister Araga Jnanendra met stiff opposition from Congress and the (secular) Janata Dal, while the Christian community staged a series of protests demanding its withdrawal. The bill prohibits illegal conversion by false declaration, force, undue influence, coercion, seduction or by any fraudulent means. It bans conversion for marriage, a long-standing demand by right-wing activists who allege an increase in “jihad of love” cases. The conversion to Hinduism was however excluded from its scope, because the BJP maintains that it is the return to the sources of Hindus who have converted to a religion of foreign origin.

Opposition leader Siddaramaiah said the bill was draconian and unconstitutional. In particular, he opposed the provision which made conversion by or after marriage illegal, calling it a violation of an individual’s fundamental rights to choose a partner. Justice Minister JC Madhuswamy said that although article 25 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it is subject to public order, morality and health. “In recent years, the state has seen many cases of conversion by fraudulent means and also mass conversions, disrupting public order. At present, there is no legislation to prevent these cases and to punish those who engage in the act. So the Karnataka Law Commission also recommended a new law, ”Madhuswamy said. Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai, who called religious conversion a “silent invasion,” said poverty and disabilities were being misused to make people change their faith and that strict law was needed to prevent it. fight against this practice.

With Karnataka heading to the polls in less than 16 months, the BJP is focused on promoting legislation in line with its pro-Hindu agenda. After passing the controversial cow slaughter law, which sparked debate over people’s dietary choices, he has now passed the bill to “tackle” the illegal conversion.

Peter Machado, Archbishop of Bangalore and chairman of the All Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights, said the Christian community opposed the bill because it would encourage fringe Hindu elements to attack missionaries and target pastors and nuns. “The first anti-conversion law was passed in Odisha in 1967. Attacks against Christians began from the 1970s, culminating in the Kandhamal genocide. The law gave a justification for the attacks on Christians, ”he said.

Machado said there was no need for a new law because there were enough laws and judicial guidelines to monitor any deviations from existing laws. Siddaramaiah said: “In the new bill, the onus of proving that there has not been an illegal or forced conversion or a forced conversion through marriage lies with the person who performs the conversion or assists in such conversion. conversion. This contradicts the Indian Evidence Act. State Congressman DK Shivakumar said the bill was a ploy by the BJP to disturb the peace. “The Mughals, the British and the Portuguese ruled India but the Christian population has not increased. Children of BJP leaders study at Christian educational institutions. I too studied in a Christian school. But no one preached Christianity to me or tried to convert me. If Christian institutions provide free medical treatment, can you call it an enticement? The bill is a stain for the state.

While many BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have enacted laws to curb forced conversions, the criminal provisions of the Karnataka Bill are stricter. Any forced conversion of a person belonging to the general category will be punishable by a prison sentence of three to five years with a penalty of 025,000. However, the law provides for severe prison terms of three to 10 years and a penalty of Rs 50,000 for those who convert minors, women or people belonging to castes and listed tribes. “Mass conversion”, defined as the conversion of two or more people, will carry a prison sentence of three to 10 years and a fine of 01 lakh. Under the provisions of the bill, people belonging to listed castes will lose their reservation benefits after conversion.

Siddaramaiah questioned the wisdom behind prescribing harsher penalties for converts from scheduled castes and tribes. “As Dr Ambedkar said, all are equal before the law and should enjoy equal protection of the law,” he said. “Why this discrimination? “

Bommai retaliated by saying the BJP was aware of the realities on the ground. “Does Siddaramaiah have a problem if vulnerable groups are given additional protection under the law? We are aware that these groups are lagging behind when it comes to education. They are ignorant and naive and some people exploit their helplessness.

Once the new law comes into force, anyone intending to convert will have to notify the district magistrate one month in advance, failing which they face a prison sentence of six months to three years. The person conducting the conversion ceremony must also give one month’s notice, failing which he will be liable to imprisonment for one to five years.

The district magistrate must conduct a police investigation to find out the real purpose of the conversion. A statement would be put on the notice board to check if there are any objections. If there are objections, the district magistrate can order an investigation through the tax or welfare department to verify “the true intention, purpose and cause” of the proposed conversion.

Once the conversion has been authorized by the authorities, the converted person must send another declaration and a copy of their identity card to the district magistrate within 30 days of the conversion. This statement will again be posted to the district magistrate’s office and people can send in their objections. The converted person must also appear before the district magistrate.

Machado, meanwhile, denied that there were any forced conversions in Karnataka. “If there had been a generalized conversion, the Christian population should have increased. According to the Indian census, the percentage of the Christian population in all of India in 2001 was 2.34%, while it fell to 2.30% in 2011. In Karnataka, the Christian population which was from 1.91% in 2001, fell to 1.87%. . “

Anil Thomas, secretary general of state for BJP Minority Morcha, said the census did not give a real picture as converted Christians, especially those who belonged to Hindu castes and communities, refused to give up their caste identity in order to continue. to benefit from the advantages of the reservation. “You can find Bishop Venkatesh Nayak, Prophet Narayan Gowda, and self-appointed bishops across the state. Officially, the state has only around 11.5 lakh of Christians. But Christian religious leaders of important denominations like Roman Catholics, Syrian Christians, Pentecostals, Methodists and Baptists each claim to have a number of at least 10 lakh.

Thomas said a caste census ordered by the Siddaramaiah government in 2016 listed 40 Christian denominations, which included those converted from different Hindu castes. “The claim that conversions occur due to the caste hierarchy and discrimination in Hindu society is not true. The caste survey shows that it is not only ‘untouchables’ but also people from other Hindu castes who have converted, ”he said. BJP MP Arvind Bellad, who represents Hubli-Dharwad constituency, said discrimination was not widespread only among Hindus and that several Christian and Islamic groups practice untouchability.

During the debate on the bill in the assembly, Siddaramaiah said, quoting Ambedkar, that in order to free the Dalits from slavery, conversion was necessary. President Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri responded to Siddaramaiah’s argument by pointing out that Ambedkar was opposed to conversion to a “foreign religion”. “Ambedkar refused to embrace Islam or Christianity saying that accepting a foreign religion would not be simply a religious conversion (mataantara) but an alienation of the nation (rashtraantara). The greatness of Ambedkar was that he worked for 20 years to combat the evils of Hindu society before embracing Buddhism, a religion that originated in India, ”Kageri said.

Dalit leader and lawmaker Kollegal N. Mahesh who joined the BJP after being kicked out of the BSP said Ambedkar believed Buddhism to be 100% Indian. “Babasaheb said he was going back to his original religion. He warned the Dalits that converting to Islam or Christianity would denationalize the depressed classes, ”Mahesh said.

As the BJP prepares to push the bill through the legislative council, it needs the support of the newly elected independent MLC Lakhan Jarkiholi, younger brother of party MPs Ramesh and Balachandra Jarkiholi. The strength of the BJP in the 75-member house will increase from 32 to 37 on January 5, when 25 members retire and new members are sworn in. However, he will still lack a simple majority. He hopes to get the anti-conversion bill passed as soon as possible by winning Lakhan.

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