Christians and other religious minorities have launched a legal challenge against a new law which is set to increase state control of religious schools in Gujarat State, India.
The Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education (Amendment) Act, which came into effect on 1 June 2021, stipulates that the appointment of teachers and head teachers will now be undertaken by a new Central Recruitment Committee rather than by the schools themselves.
The Gujarat state government has also announced that a new anti-conversion amendment, passed in March 2021, will come into effect on 15 June.
Teles Fernandes, a church minister and leader in Christian education, explained that the centralisation of teaching appointments “has practically withdrawn the rights of all religious minorities guaranteed in the constitution to establish and manage educational institutions”.
The new education law also stipulates that teaching appointments made by the Central Recruitment Committee must be accepted by schools within seven days. Schools which refuse to accept appointees may be de-registered.
Church leaders fear that the new law will dilute the Christian character of schools, and that this may be the first step towards religious schools coming under full state control.
There are also fears that this process in Gujarat may be replicated in other Indian states, particularly those which, like Gujarat, are governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Anti-conversion amendment places burden of proof on the accused
Gujarat’s anti-conversion amendment bill stipulates a sentence of up to ten years’ imprisonment for allegedly forced or fraudulent conversions undertaken through marriage, an increase from the previous maximum sentence of four years.
While an earlier act already prohibited coercion to convert using money or gifts, the amendment also makes it illegal to persuade somebody to convert with the promise of “divine blessings”. If applied rigorously this may make it illegal to tell a non-Christian that repenting and believing in Christ will bring forgiveness for sins and everlasting life.
The bill also places the burden of proof on the accused, making conviction more likely.
Similar legislation has already been passed this year by the BJP-controlled states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Research suggests that anti-conversion laws can lead to increased violent persecution of Christians in Indian states which enforce them. In March 2021 the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a hard-line Hindu group, pledged to identify and report Christians carrying out allegedly “illegal” conversions in Madhya Pradesh.