New Delhi: Uttarakhand unit of the Congress party has accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of indulging in “politics of polarisation”.
The Congress’ party comments come against the backdrop of two recent issues. The state witnessed a violent attack on a Christmas programme last week in the Uttarkashi district, and also saw governor Gurmit Singh giving his assent to a stricter anti-conversion law with punitive action against offenders. The original law was passed in 2018.
According to Congress, the latest developments are part of the BJP’s long-term plan of dividing votes on religious grounds. Speaking to The Wire, Congress state unit president, Karan Mahara, said the BJP is continuing with its agenda to polarise voters despite winning Assembly elections held earlier this year since “that is what it stands for”.
On December 24, the governor gave his consent to the Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, which defines the religious conversion of two or more people as “mass conversion” and made it punishable with a term of up to 10 years and a fine of up to Rs 50,000.
A day prior, on December 23, around 30 people attacked a Christmas programme at Purola village in Uttarkashi district on allegations of “forced conversions”.
Reacting to the developments, Mahara said the only direction in which the BJP has been working is to play with the sentiments of the people and polarise the votes. “This is how they want people to forget that their children are sleeping hungry and that there is widespread unemployment. Also, they do not want people to remember cases like the Ankita Bhandari murder case in which attempts are being made to protect the VIP accused.”
“Religion is something which can be easily used to provoke the sentiments of the people. So, to divert the attention of the public from the big issues facing the country or the state, the BJP deliberately resorts to taking such actions,” he charged.
Mahara said the BJP brought the anti-conversion law to sow differences between people. “We in the Congress are of the view that there is no need for people to change their religion. Also, we believe that no religion teaches us to fight. No religion teaches any wrong, so people should follow their faith, their gurus, their preachings.”
According to the law, unlawful conversions are deemed cognisable and non-bailable offence in the state. The governor gave his approval to the amended law on December 24. Earlier, the state Assembly had on November 30 passed the law in which a new clause was inserted in Section 2 of the law wherein a “mass conversion” would constitute one where the “religion of two or more persons is converted” and “unlawful conversion” would mean “any conversion not in accordance with the law of the land”.
The amendments also provide for an up to 10-year term for those convicted of converting a woman, minor or members of the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities.
The amendments were approved by the Uttarakhand cabinet chaired by chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on November 16 after the state police submitted a report on its proposals for strengthening the anti-conversion law. It reportedly followed the template of Uttar Pradesh in the matter.
A couple of days later, Dhami had described religious conversion as a “nasoor (canker)” for the state and said that stricter anti-conversion provisions were needed to curb it.
Reacting to BJP’s arguments, the Congress state president said, “The government should understand what are the reasons and why are people changing their religion. Those shortcomings should be removed. There must be a reason. Only then will someone change his or her religion. We have heard that people who were prevented from entering temples or those who were prevented from filling water from taps and wells, they were the ones who were compelled to change their religion.”
So, Mahara said, the real reasons behind conversions should be identified and acknowledged and the government should focus on rectifying those issues. “And my poser to the BJP is that you talk about forced conversions but would you accept voluntary conversions?”
Mahara accused the BJP of playing divisive politics all through. “That is what it stands for. They have never had anything to do with the real development or the welfare of people. They have a single-point focus. In Uttarakhand too, they have been constantly speaking about forced conversions, madrasas, mazars – they do not want to talk about other things.”
The Congress leader said such politics only vitiate the atmosphere and incite passion when there is actually no need for them.
Incidentally, just a day prior to the consent to the Bill, a mob of around 30 people had on Friday attacked a Christmas programme in Purola village in Uttarkashi district alleging that “forced conversions” were taking place there.
Following the incident, state DGP Ashok Kumar stated that several people sustained injuries in the incident. “In the cross FIR, one side has been accused of forcibly converting while the other of being assaulted,” he had told a news agency.
Though the police had initially detained some of the attackers, they later let them go. Incidentally, among those detained by the police were Pastor Lazarus Cornelius and his wife Sushma Cornelius, who were attacked by men claiming to be from a Hindutva organisation.
The attack took place at Hope and Life Centre when the pastor, who belongs to Union Church, Mussoorie, was leading prayers.