Rono Shaiza, a member of Parliament from Nagaland state, has told India's Prime Minister Morarji Desai that the bill on religious conversions passed by the Arunachal Pradesh Assembly in May is "unconstitutional and anti-Christian."
Shaiza, at a meeting with Desai, told him that if the president of India signs the bill, it will deprive the people of Arunachal Pradesh of their right to freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Indian constitution. The bill will legalize the "persecution of Christians" now being carried on in that state, she said.
Arunachal Pradesh is a hilly state in northeast Indian, difficult of access and populated mainly by illiterate tribes. Christian missionaries have been active there and in other states of northeast India for nearly a century - setting up schools and hospitals and engaging in humanitarian works. Nearly half of the state's 500,000 population is Christian, mostly converts from tribal religions. In recent years there has been severe pressure on India's government to stop mass conversions to Christianity in northeast India.
The bill passed by the Arunachal Assembly reflects government response to such pressure. It prohibits conversion of a person from one indigenous faith to another "by force, inducement or fraudulent means. "Force" in the meaning of the bill, includes "show of force, including threat of injury of any kind, including the threat of divine displeasure of social excommunication."
"Fraud" has been defined as "misrepresentation or any other fraudulent contrivance" and "inducement" as an "offer of any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind, and grant of any benefit, either pecuniary or otherwise."
The bill says that the problem of conversion from one indigenous faith to any other faith or religion has been the creation of unhealthy and undesirable friction in the unsophisticated and simple tribal communities of Arunachal. The bill seeks to provide for the punishment of those who indulge in such conversion by force, inducement of fraudulent means.
Christian sources say that the term "indigenous faith" has been defined in such a manner that it permits conversions to Hinduism or Buddhism but imposes severe curbs on conversions to Christianity. The bill defines indigenous faith as "such religions, beliefs and practices, including rites, rituals, festivals, observances, performances, customs, as have been found sanctioned, approved, and performed by the indigenous communities from the time these communities have been known."
Heavy penalties - up to two years in jail and a fine of $1,250 - are imposed for conversions secured by fraud, force or inducement. A senior district government official must be informed of all conversions in a prescribed form within a prescribed period. Failure to notify the official may result in a year in jail or a fine of $125. Prosecution under the act will be initiated only with the sanction of the deputy commissioner.
Arunachal Pradesh is the third state in India to pass an anticonversion bill. Such acts are already in force in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.