Indian laws put Christian missionaries on defensive

Proponents of religious freedom are criticizing Indian laws against forced conversion.

The walls of Lajja Devi's spartan house are plastered with Hindu images: blue-skinned Lord Krishna playing the flute; the warrior goddess Durga, brandishing a knife in each of her eight hands; barefoot, saffron-robed priests.

But only weeks before, every picture in the house was Christian. Ms. Devi, who lives in Shimla, the capital of the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, was born a Hindu but willingly converted to Christianity five years ago. She returned to Hinduism in a "ghar vapasi" – literally, homecoming – ritual with more than 100 others in February.

"I am back home now; I am much happier," says Devi, beaming.

Her especially noisy, colorful ceremony was held to generate publicity for a new law passed in Himachal Pradesh earlier in February, banning forced religious conversions.

To others, however, Himachal Pradesh's anticonversion law and its "re-conversion" ceremonies give little cause for happiness. Rather, they are a troubling indication of a rising intolerance toward India's tiny Christian minority.

Hindu nationalists have long claimed that a rapacious band of "alleluia wallahs" is threatening India's Hindu identity. There may be some truth in these claims – there have been fears, even within India's Christian minority, that an expansionist evangelical movement is proslytizing too aggressively among India's poorest people.

But recently, these concerns have been used to justify a number of violent attacks on missionaries, and an increase in controversial anticonversion laws.

The law's title seems ironic, given its terms. Anyone wishing to switch religions must inform the district magistrate 30 days before or risk a fine. If a person converts another "by the use of force or by inducement or by any other fraudulent means," they may be imprisoned for up to two years, fined, or both. The law is silent, however, on the subject of "reconversions."

Now, the multiplication of these laws is causing concerns beyond India. The US State Department's report on human rights practices, published in March, expressed concerns over "attempts by state and local governments to limit religious freedom" and the "promulgation of antireligious conversion laws."

The various iterations on the reconversion laws are only one part of India's abiding Hindu nationalism. On May 9, TV channels broadcast footage of two missionaries accused of forcibly converting Hindus being paraded through the streets of Kolhapur in Maharashtra by an angry mob. A week earlier, a pastor in Jaipur, Rajasthan, was brutally beaten on the same grounds.

Yet violence against Christian missionaries is more the exception than the rule. More commonly, anti-Christian antipathy in India is expressed through anticonversion laws. When Himachal Pradesh passed its Freedom of Religion Bill in February, it became the fifth state in India to do so.

A lack of evidence

In Shimla, a pretty town in the foothills of the Himalayas, where British colonialists kept their summer capital, most modern conversions take place in indigenous, home-based churches.

"We are a growing and powerful church," says the pastor of one home-based church who asks to remain anonymous. "We don't want any trouble. We aren't forcibly converting anyone; we're just telling them the truth."

Because his church has no conversion rite, this pastor says it is impossible to inform authorities of the intention to convert. But what really bothers him is the way "inducement" is defined in the law.

"Inducement," states the law, "shall include the offer of any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind or grant of any benefit either pecuniary or otherwise."

"That could mean anything," protests the pastor. "In our culture it is traditional to give food. In Christianity, it is traditional to feed the poor."

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.

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."

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