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Just a day after the Karnataka cabinet cleared the controversial Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill 2021, also known as the ‘anti-conversion Bill’, it was tabled before the state legislative assembly during the winter session on December 21.
“How can you introduce the Bill? We oppose the introduction of the Bill. It is a violation of constitutional rights. This is a draconian law,” said Congress leader Siddaramaiah amidst the din in the House.
The speaker responded by saying it was part of the “supplementary agenda”. “Listen to my request. We need to work together. You are saying that the Bill shouldn’t be introduced at all, but my job is to introduce the Bill when the government is proposing. You can register your protest during the discussion,” said the speaker.
Furious arguments ensued between Congress and the BJP during the discussion, and it ended on a dramatic note as Congress’ D.K. Shivakumar tore up a copy of the Bill.
While the BJP said it was not appropriate on the part of a Congress leader to tear up a copy of the Bill in the Well of the House, Shivakumar responded, saying, “Yes, I tore the Bill. It is my right to do so. This Bill is against the constitution. They (BJP) are just acting like thieves. We all were sitting there and waiting. This was not part of the subject. When the revenue minister was replying, they stopped him midway and tabled this. They could have waited till he finished. We can’t stop them, but we wanted to object the Bill before it is introduced. The chief minister has to call for a vote. He has to ask. A lot of things are there to object. The speaker joined hands with them.”
Tool to harass Christians?
The Karnataka government has decided to follow in the footsteps of Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, which have enacted laws with clear communal undertones, to push ahead with the Bill keeping its eyes focused on the 2023 assembly polls. While the laws introduced in the other states signalled a victory for the Sangh parivar‘s “love jihad” campaign, in the case of Karnataka, the Bill under consideration is being seen as a tool to harass Christians.
Talking about conversion, the Bill claims that “allurement” includes any offer of any temptation in the form of:
- Any gift, gratification, easy money or material benefit either in cash or kind;
- Employment, free education in school or college run by any religious body;
- Promise to marry;
- A better lifestyle, divine displeasure or otherwise;
- Portraying practice, rituals and ceremonies or any integral part of a religion in a detrimental way vis-a-vis another religion; or
- Glorifying one religion against another religion.
Peter Machado, the Archbishop of Bengaluru, said, “I’ve said from the beginning that this anti-conversion Bill is anti-Christian. This does target the Christians specifically. Will you be as strict and stringent if there are Catholics, who want to convert to Hinduism?”
He said some of the provisions in the Bill are insensitive. “It will be a crime tomorrow to do some charity. So, giving free education will also be a big problem. If I have to help a Dalit child, who can’t afford to pay the fees, I’ll have to fill a number of forms. I will have to explain why the child is being helped, and why I am offering free education. If we are going to explain why we are distributing gifts, tomorrow, Santa Claus will be a dangerous character too. I request the government to not go ahead with the Bill. I request with folded hands,” he said.
A recent fact-finding report compiled by the United Christian Forum, Association for Protection of Civil Rights and United Against Hate revealed that Karnataka stands third among states that have witnessed the highest number of attacks on Christian members and churches.
According to a media report, the Archbishop had mentioned that since January, 32 incidents of church attacks were reported in Belagavi, Hubballi, etc. And these attacks were in the news much before the tabling of this Bill.
Karnataka BJP spokesperson S. Prakash countered the Archbishop’s allegations.“I’m unable to understand why the Christian community is up against it. This is an attempt to prohibit forcible conversion, for it impacts all three religions. It is not confined to Hinduism alone. It should be welcomed by one and all,” he said.
Interfaith marriages are no more a private affair
The Bill states that marriage done with the sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice versa by a man of one religion with a woman of another religion, either by converting himself either before or after marriage or by converting the woman, shall be declared as null and void.
That’s not all. “Promise to marry” is considered “allurement”, opening up the possibility to target interfaith couples.
“What is the agenda? Is it to disturb society? Our constitution says that irrespective of religion, we need to live in peace. India has always been a tolerant society,” said G. Parameshwar of the Karnataka Congress.
The BJP says that this is only to prohibit forcible conversions. “Any conversion by luring the people is unethical,” said BJP spokesperson S. Prakash.
What about the right to privacy?
The Bill makes it mandatory for one who desires to convert to give a declaration 30 days in advance to a district magistrate (DM). The religious converter shall give 30 days advance notice of such intended conversion. A DM would then get an inquiry conducted to note if any objections are received within 30 days. A declaration needs to be made by the converted person within 30 days from the date of conversion. The DM will call for objections. The converted person shall appear before the DM 21 days after conversion to establish his identity and confirm the contents of the declaration.
“It doesn’t matter what the constitution of India says about your freedom of religion; the local DM is the god you need to bow down before. He in his own time will decide what your religion can or cannot be,” said Nivedith Alva of the Congress.
The JDS called it a deliberate attempt to target certain sections of society. “This Bill is of no use to anybody. They want to damage certain communities,” said party chief HD Kumaraswamy.
The BJP was quick to hit back. “This law merely regulates conversion; it does not ban it. These are unnecessary fears caused by the opposition. All provisions of the Bill have been considered duly. This is being unduly politicised by Congress,” said Malavika Avinash, BJP spokesperson.
Hindutvaisation, the larger goal?
Ghar wapsi has been one of the most publicised concepts introduced by Hindutva groups soon after Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. RSS leader Rajeshwar Singh converted around 300 Muslims to Hinduism in Agra in 2014 alone. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) insisted on the ghar wapsi campaign to include “love jihad”, attempting to reconvert Hindu women married to Muslim men. The group’s first target was actress Kareena Kapoor.
Recently, Hosadurga MLA Gulihatti Shekhar of the Karnataka BJP had alleged that over 20,000 people of his constituency, including his mother, had been converted to Christianity. He said that his mother and four families had returned to Hinduism later. Following this, the Hosadurga Taluk administration conducted a survey in two villages of the Chitradurga district and found that the conversions were voluntary.
“If you look at the 2011 census and compare it with today, the Christian population has diminished from 2.34% to 2.3%. Harmless communities are being targeted by the ruling party. They are bloodthirsty, they beat up people and spill blood. This anti-conversion Bill is nothing but a diversion tactic,” said the Congress’s Brijesh Kalappa.
Those opposing the Bill protested in Bengaluru on December 22. They were carrying placards that read:
“Then it was me, tomorrow it can be you.”
“Let’s uphold the constitution.”
“We have the right to profess, practice and propagate our faith.”
Tanveer Ahmed, a social activist, who was part of the protests, said, “The government’s intention is to break the secular fabric of this country and introduce its communal agenda. And this will become their poll plank during the next election. They are making a fool of the majority as well.”
Complaints can be filed by any person related to the person getting converted. Anyone found guilty under this law will be charged with a cognisable and non-bailable offence. If the case involves people from general categories, a jail term of three years to five years, and a fine of Rs 25,000 has been proposed. If minors, women and persons from the SC and ST communities are involved, a jail term of three-ten years and a fine of Rs 50,000 has been proposed.
Chief minister Basavaraj Bommai criticised the Congress’s conduct in the legislature session terming it “an irresponsible opposition party”. However, the chief minister will face hurdles in the Upper House, where the party lacks the numbers to pass the Bill.
Pratiba Raman is a freelance journalist.