On Oct. 31, the 234-member Tamil Nadu assembly in South India approved a controversial bill banning forced religious conversions.
The new law imposes penalties of up to three years in prison for converting someone by force or inducement.There have been heated debates during the entire month of October about the decision taken by the authorities in Tamil Nadu. Predictably, Hindu nationalists praised the measure, while Christian, Muslim and Buddhist — as well as Dalit — activists protested against it. 6,000 schools run by Christians and Muslims in the Southern State closed in protest during a day.
Of course, nobody claims that forcible conversions should be accepted. But, notwithstanding its name, the new law also targets the use of “allurements” to convert (material benefits, monetary or otherwise), and Christians are afraid that free education and health care could become interpreted as such. Conversions will also have to be reported to district magistrates.
According to the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, one of the highest authorities in Hinduism, there is nothing shocking in such a rule, since even marriages have to be registered. Indeed, The Hindu (Nov. 1) reports that Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s arguments in the course of the three-hour debate were against conversion itself. According to her, “conversions create resentment and also inflame religious passions, leading to communal clashes.”
Hindu militants claim that poverty more than faith drives people to convert. Widely-publicized cases of conversion have angered some sections of the population: for instance, reports the French Catholic newsletter Eglises d’Asie (Oct. 16), the conversion of 250 low-caste rural people to Seventh-Day Adventism last August. Cases of conversions to Buddhism or Islam are also not uncommon, although they don’t change the statistical balance between religions in the second most populated country of the world
A report from the evangelical news agency Compass Direct (Oct. 11) suggests that this kind of conflict is not confined to India. Money raised by Hindu organizations in Western countries is being used to fund the anti-proselytizing effort and other aggressive actions against other minorities in India, according to the news service. Non-profit organizations associated with Hindu nationalist organizations collected nearly one million pounds in the past year from subsidiaries in the United Kingdom.
In 1999, the India Income Tax Department revealed that funding from the United States reached $62.5 million dollars. A 1998 letter written by Sitaram Agarwal, secretary of the World Hindu Council (VHP), states that his organization “needs money and lots of it to carry out shuddhi (cleansing) and seva (service) and dharam prasar (proselytizing)” among lower caste Indians. India’s secular Congress Party has alleged that the VHP is guilty of misuse of funds it receives in the name of charity and has demanded an inquiry.
(Eglises d’Asie, 128 rue du Bac, 75341 Paris Cedex 07, France; http://www.compassdirect.org)
— By Jean-François Mayer with a contribution by the editor