New Delhi, July 26 (Compass) — The government of the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh has declared that it will amend its anti-conversion law to check the conversion of tribal people to Christianity.
The decision was made after Narendra Prasad, a retired director-general of police, submitted a report on May 21 claiming missionaries were forcibly converting large numbers of tribal peoples in the state.
Prasad’s report cited census data showing that the Christian population in Jhabua had increased by 80 percent from 1991 to 2001. His report blamed Christian missionaries and government laxity for the “huge” numbers of conversions.
Prasad also blamed Christian missionaries for last year’s confrontation between Christians and groups opposing conversions in the district of Jhabua.
The Narendra Prasad Inquiry Committee was established by the state government in February 2004, following an incident in which the Hindu community blamed Christians for the brutal rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl identified only as Sujata.
Sujata’s body was found in a toilet on the grounds of a missionary school in early January 2004. Jhabua erupted in violent protest, with Hindu mobs destroying the homes and personal possessions of Christians in the days that followed, even after the police arrested a non-Christian on January 15 in connection with the incident.
The Madhya Pradesh State Minorities Commission (SMC) has yet to release its own report on Sujata’s murder and the ensuing violence. “It is beyond the jurisdiction of the state government to act on a ‘one man’ inquiry when … the report of the SMC is awaited,” Indira Ayengar, a member of the SMC, told Compass.
“[Prasad’s] report is visibly one-sided. It only talks about conversions from the point of view of anti-conversion forces.”
Ayengar said the report is silent on the burning of three churches; the illegal detention of 11 Christians from January 2004 until now; the torching of 15 houses belonging to Christian families; and the conduct of Nahar Singh, a member of the state legislative assembly from the Bharatiya Janata Party, who led attacks on Christians.
In response to the charge that Christian missionaries have used force and allurement to convert tribal people, Ayengar replied, “After the anti-Christian attacks in Jhabua, the collector [administrative head of district] clearly told me that he had not received a single complaint about forcible conversion in the last 10 years.”
Bhagirath Prasad, principal secretary of the State Home Department, confirmed that the government was considering amendments to the Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam (Freedom of Religion) Act of 1968.
“Although the existing law is sufficient to check conversions by force or fraudulent means, we need to ensure the implementation of the provision that requires all conversions to be reported to the state government,” Prasad said. “We do not have any draft of the proposed amendments to the law yet, but we are examining the law to see what can be done.”
Under Section 5(1) of the Act, the collector must be notified within seven days of a conversion taking place.
Failure to comply with this provision can lead to imprisonment for up to one year and a stiff fine, even if the conversion is found to be voluntary.
Similarly, under Sections 5 and 6 of the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhinayam Rules of 1969, collectors must pass on details about reported conversions to the state government on the 10th day of every month.
Three recent events show that conversion is still a contentious issue in the state.
Members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a radical Hindu group, stormed a pastors’ retreat in Gandhi Nagar, Ratlam district, on July 23. The attackers entered the Gujarati hall and asked tribal participants why they were attending the meeting. Police and media representatives soon learned of the meeting, and authorities accused the conference organizers of encouraging forced conversions.
Police took statements from both parties but made no arrests.
Secondly, Father P.T. Thomas, director of St. Michael’s Catholic School in Jhabua district, was arrested on July 21 and charged under the Freedom of Religion Act for abetting conversion to Christianity. He was released on bail the following day.
And on July 20, Hindu extremists entered a house in Jeet Nagar village while Jagdish Naik and his wife Grace, both independent Christian workers, were conducting a prayer meeting. The couple was dragged to the police station, charged with attempted conversion, and released on bail within 24 hours.
In response to these events and Prasad’s allegations, the state government plans to question the Department of Tribal Welfare and district collectors about conversions and any action taken against them.
According to 2001 Census figures, Christians account for just 170,381 of 60.3 million residents in Madhya Pradesh.
© 2005 Compass Direct