The Hindu nationalist government in the southern state of Karnataka, which recorded the second highest number of attacks on Christians last year, is planning to introduce the kind of "anti-conversion" law that has provided the pretext for anti-Christian violence in other states.
Such laws are designed to thwart forcible or fraudulent conversion, but they are popularly misunderstood as criminalizing conversion in general. Comments from public officials sometimes heighten this misconception: India's constitution provides for freedom of religion, but Karnataka Minister for Law, Justice and Human Rights S. Suresh Kumar said in the Feb. 22 edition of a Hindu extremist publication that the state's Bharatiya Janata Party government "is set to frame an anti-conversion law, as innocent Hindus are getting converted to other religions."
"Poor and uneducated Hindus are becoming victims of false propaganda against Hinduism, and our government is planning to enact a law after studying the similar anti-conversion acts/anti-conversion bills of various states," the BJP minister said in the Organiser, official publication of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh , the BJP's ideological mentor.
Anti-conversion laws are in force in five states - Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat - and its implementation is awaited in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. Cynically named "Freedom of Religion Acts," the laws seek to curb religious conversions made by "force, fraud or allurement," but human rights groups say they obstruct conversion generally as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christians with spurious arrests and incarcerations. Numerous cases against Christians have been filed under various anti-conversion laws, mainly in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, but no one has been convicted in the more than four decades since such laws were enacted.
Dr. Sajan K. George, national president of the Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians , expressed anguish over reported plans to introduce a law that has a history of misuse by extreme Hindu nationalists. He also indicated his concern at the government's slackness in prosecuting those who have attacked Christians.
"Unfortunately, 2008 saw the worst kind of regression in our society as the church in India experienced a wave of violence and persecution unprecedented since the origin of Christianity in India 2,000 years ago," George said, referring to a sudden rise in anti-Christian attacks in several Indian states, mainly Karnataka and the eastern state of Orissa, in the latter part of last year.
With the BJP forming a government of its own last year, fears within the Christian community that persecution would increase came true, he said.
"Karnataka recorded at least 112 anti-Christian attacks across 29 districts in 2008," and at least 10 more such incidents have been reported this year, said George. Christians number slightly more than 1 million of Karnataka's 52.8-million population.
Among the more tense districts in Karnataka are Mangalore, Bangalore and Davangere, according to George. The districts of Chikmagalur, Chitradurga, Belgaum, Tumkur, Udupi, Shimoga, Dharwad and Kodagu are also potentially volatile, he said. The GCIC reported that on Jan. 11 unidentified extreme Hindu nationalists barged into the home of a Christian convert in Amrthmahal Kavalu area near Tiptur town in Karnataka's Tumkur district, verbally abused the four Christians there and burned their Bibles. The nine hard-line Hindus threatened to burn down the house if the Christians continued to worship at the Calvary Gospel Centre.
Besides legitimizing anti-Christian violence in the popular mind, critics say anti-conversion laws make conversion cumbersome and identify targets for Hindu extremists. In Gujarat state, the archbishop of Gandhinagar, Rev. Stanislaus Fernandes, and non-profit organizations have filed a petition in the state high court challenging a requirement in Gujarat's anti-conversion law that co-religionists obtain prior permission from a district magistrate before performing or participating in a conversion ceremony. The Times of India reported on Friday that Justice M.S. Shah and Justice Akil Kureshi have accepted the case and issued a notice to the state government seeking explanation on objections raised by petitioners.
"The Act, by making one's conversion a matter of public notice and knowledge, really aims at facilitating and encouraging the religious fanatics to take law into their hands to prevent even free and voluntary conversion," petitioner attorneys contended. "In the name of maintaining law and order, the Act will invite people to disturb law and order." Counsel added that the Act aims mainly at "preventing Dalits and adivasis from converting to another religion, thereby forcing them to remain in the Hindu fold."
A fresh spate of attacks hit Karnataka last September following India's worst-ever wave of persecution in the eastern state of Orissa, where at least 127 people were killed and 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions were destroyed. The Orissa attacks, allegedly incited by the BJP and the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad under the pretext of avenging the assassination of Hindu nationalist leader Laxmanananda Saraswati in Kandhamal district, also rendered more than 50,000 people homeless. Although an extreme Marxist group claimed responsibility for Saraswati's murder, the VHP and the BJP, which is part of the ruling coalition in Orissa, blamed Christians for it.
Even as the mayhem in Orissa was underway, VHP's youth wing Bajrang Dal began attacks on Christians and their institutions in Karnataka on the pretext of protesting alleged distribution by the New Life Fellowship organization of a book said to denigrate Hindu gods. According to Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, last September at least 33 churches were attacked and 53 Christians were injured, mainly in the Mangalore region of Dakshina Kannada district and parts of Udupi district.
The state convener for the Bajrang Dal, Mahendra Kumar, publicly claimed responsibility for the attacks and was arrested on Sept. 19, a day after the federal government ruled by the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance admonished the state government for allowing attacks on Christians, according to The Deccan Herald, a regional daily. Kumar, however, was subsequently released on bail.
While the issue of the "objectionable" book served as the pretext for the attacks, the BJP had already become upset with New Life Fellowship because a film actress known as Nagma announced in July 2008 that she had become Christian a few years prior. BJP attorneys sent her a threatening legal notice for "hurting religious sentiments."
In a press conference at Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu state on July 24, the general secretary of the BJP's legal wing, Sridhar Murthi, said that Nagma - who appeared in several Tamil-, Telugu- and Hindi-language films from 1993 to 1997 - had hurt the sentiments of others while speaking at a Christian meeting in Nalumavadi, in the Tuticorin area.
"In that meeting, she said she is ready to preach the gospel in every city and town that the Lord takes her to," reported The Christian Messenger, a Christian news website based in Tamil Nadu state. New Life Fellowship later reportedly ordained Nagma as a minister.
Following the attacks - not only on New Life Church but also on churches and individuals from various denominations - the BJP government set up the Justice B.K. Somasekhara Commission of Inquiry to investigate. Churches and Christians had filed 458 affidavits from Dakshina Kannada district. After questioning 49 witnesses, the panel completed its five-day judicial proceeding in Mangalore on Feb. 20 and set the next sitting for March 16-20. The Commission earlier had a sitting in Bangalore, capital of Karnataka.
Karnataka also has gained recent notoriety for violent vigilantes. Last month a splinter group from the extreme Hindu nationalist VHP, the Sri Ram Sene, attacked women in a pub in Mangalore, saying only men were allowed to drink.
"These girls come from all over India, drink, smoke, and walk around in the night spoiling the traditional girls of Mangalore," Pravin Valke, founding member of the Sri Rama Sene, told The Indian Express on Feb. 3. "Why should girls go to pubs? Are they going to serve their future husbands alcohol? Should they not be learning to make chapattis ? Bars and pubs should be for men only. We wanted to ensure that all women in Mangalore are home by 7 p.m."
With national elections expected to be held in April-May this year, Christians fear that attacks could continue. Dr. Bokanakere Siddalingappa Yeddyurappa, the 66-year-old chief minister of Karnataka, has been part of the RSS since 1970.