Indian laws put Christian missionaries on defensive
Proponents of religious freedom are criticizing Indian laws against forced conversion.
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He denies, of course, that his church ever forces Hindus to adopt Christianity. And indeed, no one in the state has been arrested for such a crime.Skip to next paragraph
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The politics of religious conversion
In other states with anticonversion laws, there are no reliable records or statistics for arrests or convictions, but reports by nongovernmental organizations and media suggest that accusations of forced conversion are rare.
But in India, political expediency often fills the void left by a lack of evidence. Next March, when Himachal Pradesh goes to the polls, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to mount a serious challenge to the ruling Congress Party. Every other anticonversion law has been passed in states ruled by the BJP. Himachal Pradesh is the first state in which the traditionally secular Congress Party, which also heads the central government, has passed the law.
Elsewhere in India, Hindutva, the teaching that India is a Hindu nation and that Christians and Muslims are outsiders, has proved a powerful vote-winner for the BJP. By contrast, the ruling Congress party is increasingly perceived as promoting a softer version of Hindutva.
"Sonia Gandhi [the Congress leader] is personally opposed to anticonversion laws," says Asghar Ali Engineer, director of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai (Bombay).
"But the minute she appears to be standing up for Christians, she is condemned as a foreigner, a Christian, someone who shouldn't be running a Hindu country," says Mr. Ali. "If things go on like this, more governments will pass more anticonversion laws in the future. It's a frightening prospect."
Himachal Pradesh's legislation is also shocking because the state has so few Christians: less than 8,000 out of more than 6 million, or about 0.1 percent. Nationally, Hindus form 82 percent of the population, Muslims 13 percent, and Christians less than 3 percent.
But Tarsem Bharti, president of the Himachal Pradesh chapter of the All India Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Mahasangh, a charity which works with lower castes, claims that the Christian population is bigger than the official figures suggest.
He says he first became aware of the reach of missionaries while looking through his organization's membership forms. "Hundreds were describing themselves as 'Hindu-Christians,' " says Mr. Bharti, who is also a member of the BJP and helped organize the "homecoming" ceremonies for Devi and others.
"Christian missionaries were luring poor people, telling them 'If you pray before God all your troubles will be gone,' " he says. "These people became trapped, and we needed the new law to protect them."
If Christian missionaries have targeted low-caste Hindus in Himachal Pradesh, it would not be surprising. For centuries, India's poor have embraced Christianity and Buddhism in an attempt to escape the Hindu caste system through which Hindus are born into a hierarchy, with dalits – formerly known as untouchables and often still treated as such – at the bottom.
Often, however, a dalit's conversion turns out to be no such thing: In many Indian churches, the caste system mirrors that of any Hindu temple. Another explanation for the preponderance of conversions among dalits is that India's wretchedly poor make for easy targets.
Tilak Raj, a farm laborer, became a Christian and was ordained a pastor in an indigenous church when he was 22. He returned to Hinduism eight years later. "No one forced me, it was my mistake," Mr. Raj says.
"I didn't know anything about religion," he adds, looking slightly embarrassed. "I didn't know what I was doing. But I've converted more than 200 people to Christianity; I even converted my wife."