J'khand govt takes on the church
At a time, when land laws including Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act and Santhal Parganas Tenancy (SPT) Act continue to irk the tribal community of Jharkhand, the Raghuvar Das government passed the Freedom of Religion Bill 2017, which seeks to make conversion through coercion or allurement a punishable offence attracting a maximum of three years' imprisonment. It also states that a person converting willingly must give a notice to the respective Collector of the district with details of time, place, and the name of the person administering the conversion at least 15 days in advance. Without this notice, the administration would be free to interpret the conversion as having been conducted by "force, fraud or allurement", all of which have been defined in the Act.
Incidentally, the string of seven states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Himachal, Arunachal, Odisha and now Jharkhand—which have enacted anti-conversion laws are home to almost 90 per cent of the tribal population of India also marking the places where Christian missionary activity is supposed to be at its peak. Even Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu have enacted similar anti-conversion bills, but they have been put in abeyance due to unknown reasons. While Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees the right to practice any religion of choice, nobody really explains the reason behind Jharkhand government passing the Law despite heavy resistance from the Church and opposition leaders.
The Supreme Court, in the case of Ratilal Panachand Gandhi vs. State of Bombay, had categorically mentioned this provision by saying that every person has a fundamental right not merely to entertain such religious belief as may be approved of by his judgment or conscience but to exhibit his or her belief and ideas in such overt acts as are enjoined or sanctioned by his or her religion and further to propagate his religious views for edification of others. But, in another landmark case of Rev Stanislaus vs. State of Madhya Pradesh, the Apex Court examined whether the right to practice and propagate one's religion also included the right to convert. The Court upheld the validity of the earliest anti-conversion statutes: the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam, 1968, and the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967. The Court found that "restrictions on efforts to convert are Constitutional because such efforts impinge on 'freedom of conscience' and 'public order'." It held that the right to propagate did not include the right to convert any person.
As a result, while each state is free to make its own acts of restraining certain religions from forcible conversion, in practice, it is yet to see a just and proper use of the law which for now appears to be defeating its very purpose. As the 2011 census indicated a rise of 29.7 and 28.4 per cent in Christian and Muslim population respectively in the last decade, the government made their intentions clear by issuing an advertisement with a quote it attributed to Gandhiji that questioned Christian missionaries for trying to convert tribals in India. Whatever may be the resultant of this new Bill, at present Jharkhand appears fighting for the God of small things.
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