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Religious rights take a hit in India

A southern state last week banned 'forced' conversions. Critics say it targets minorities.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2002


Here in India's southernmost state of Tamil Nadu, a state ordinance banning "forced" religious conversions is setting up the conditions for a clash between the state's religious minorities and majority Hindu community.

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On its face, the new law – which went into effect last Thursday and which punishes offenders with up to four years in prison – does not specify any particular religious group as its target. But members of Tamil Nadu's small minority communities – Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists – say the law is aimed at preventing lower-caste Hindus from converting to other religions.

"Christians do not believe in forced conversion – it is a sin; real conversion has to do with a change of the heart," says Bishop Devasagayam, head of the Anglican Church of South India in Chennai. "This ordinance is for political mobilization, and for political mobilization, you need to create an enemy," he says, referring to the minority community. "But we are confident that if we can put up a united stand against this law, no party can ignore the aspirations of 40 percent of the people."

Supporters of the law say that the best way to reduce tensions in India's multicultural society is to prevent aggressive missionaries from shifting the balances of power from one religious group to another. Some Hindu radical groups even say the law should be replicated nationwide. Detractors say that such measures only stir communal tensions and are a fundamental breach of the Indian Constitution's provisions for religious freedom.

Regardless, the debate's intensity reveals the extent to which religious and caste identity have become driving forces of this country. "In Indian society, there are two registers," says Dipankar Gupta, an anthropologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "On the political register, we don't recognize that the caste system exists, but on the social register, we do see caste differences."

The Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance is only the third of its kind in India. It includes a ban on the use of "allurements" to convert, but fails to define that term or what constitutes forced conversion in general.

"When we are feeding the poor, is that propagating our religion?" asks Bishop Devasagayam. "Anything a Christian does – whether it's teaching in schools or working in hospitals or slums – could be considered an 'allurement' to convert."

Promoted by former Tamil film star and current state Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalitha, the new law could hardly have come at a worse time. In September, the US Committee for Religious Freedom issued a scathing report on India, citing in particular communal riots last spring in the state of Gujarat, which claimed the lives of 1,000 Indians, mostly Muslims.

Since that report, the country has witnessed a number of other brutal attacks on ethnic or religious communities, including the massacre of Hindu worshippers by two Muslim gunmen at a Hindu temple in Gujarat and the mob lynching this month of five outcaste Hindus in Haryana state for the "murder" and skinning of a cow.

Many Hindus say religious minorities themselves are causing trouble. In this state, for instance, the conversion of two villages – one to Christianity and the other to Islam – set off riots in 1981 that killed dozens. In recent months, the Seventh Day Adventist church has announced a campaign to convert 1,000,000 Hindus, particularly those from the Dalit community.