The Karnataka state government in Bengaluru (Bangalore), India, has issued an ordinance that bans religious conversions secured by inducement or force.
Law Minister JC Madhuswamy announced on 12 May the measure, officially known as “The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Ordinance”.
The ordinance came into force on 17 May after receiving assent from state governor Thaawar Chand Gehlot, despite peaceful protests from Christians.
An anti-conversion bill was passed by the state legislature’s lower house on 23 December 2021, but has not been introduced to the upper chamber where the government is without a majority. The ordinance will now bring into law the provisions of that bill.
Legally, however, the ordinance can only remain in force for six months, or until the next legislative session. If it is not ratified by the legislature within six weeks of the start of that session it will cease to operate. The governor also has the right to withdraw the ordinance at any time.
In explaining the timing of the ordinance, Madhuswamy said, “The cabinet has decided to take the ordinance route as the legislature is not in session.” He added that “there is no clarity on when the legislative council will meet again. The ordinance will be in place until the [anti-conversion] bill is placed in the council, whenever it meets again.”
The ordinance penalises any conversion of faith by “misrepresentation, force, fraud, allurement or marriage” and carries a maximum punishment of five years’ imprisonment and a minimum fine of 25,000 rupees (£260; $325; €310). When the intention is to convert a minor, a woman, or a person belonging to the Scheduled Castes (those viewed as having the lowest status within the Hindu caste system), the offence is punishable with a maximum of ten years in prison and a fine of 50,000 rupees.
Peter Machado, president of the All-Karnataka United Christian Forum for Human Rights, expressed fears that Christians and other religious minorities would be targeted by extremists taking advantage of such legislation.
Machado questioned the reasoning for the government’s sudden move, affirming that in Karnataka “there have been no incidents neither of conversion, nor of aggressive incidents against the community”.
“There is no doubt that the fringe elements and groups will try to create problems for the members of our community as we have seen in the past, and the government is in no control of them,” Machado said.
Similar anti-conversion laws have been introduced in ten other Indian states, most recently in Haryana in March 2022.
From Barnabas Fund contacts and other sources