Jharkhand: Hemant Soren to review ‘anti-conversion’ law — What is Jharkhand’s Religious Freedom Act?
The Freedom of Religion Act passed in Jharkhand in 2017 makes any “fraudulent” or “forcible” conversion of an individual a non-bailable offence, with a penalty of a 3-year sentence and a fine of Rs 50,000.
On 26 December, Jharkhand’s chief minister-to-be Hemant Soren announced that the JMM-led state government will look into the strict anti-conversion law, passed by the outgoing Bharatiya Janata Party government in September 2017. Soren also declared that one of his first acts as chief minister would be to hold a discussion over the state’s implementation of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
What is the anti-conversion law?
Freedom of Religion Acts – also referred to as anti-conversion laws, are state-level statutes that restrict the number of religious conversions. Currently, laws are in place across eight out of India’s twenty-nine states. These include Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh, and more recently, Jharkhand. Although there are some variations in the law between states, much of the terminology is similar.
These laws seek to prevent individuals from converting another person through “forcible” or “fraudulent” means, or by “allurement” or “inducement”. Penalties for these laws vary from state to state but typically range from prison sentences between one and 3 years, and fines anywhere between Rs 5000 and Rs 50,000.
In Jharkhand, such offences are non-bailable. What’s more, if the case involves the conversion of a woman, minor or a member of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, penalties can range as high as a 4-year prison term, and a fine of Rs 100,000.
Why is the law contentious?
When the Freedom of Religion Act was passed in the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly in 2017, the Opposition (led by Hemant Soren) demanded the creation of a separate committee to review the law before it was implemented. They alleged that the Raghubar Das-led government aimed to sow division between the Christian minority tribals within the state, and the majority Sarna and Hindu tribals. Soren had claimed that the Christian Adivasis were better educated, and helped raise awareness of the then state government’s “land-grab efforts”.
Some have also critiqued the vague wording of the Bill cautioning that its ambiguity may allow for unwarranted harassment by law enforcement authorities.
The BJP government, on the other hand, had maintained that the work and service of the state’s Christian missionaries in education and healthcare, were a guise to convert poor Dalit members of the community.
A state-level meeting was held on 1 May 2017, and the law was enacted on August 12, 2017. Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu gave her assent to the Bill on 6 September 2017.
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