By Mythili Mishra
The state of Jharkhand recently passed the Religious Freedom Act 2017 which can lead to three years of rigorous imprisonment or penalty of up to Rs. 50,000, or both, to individuals and organisations forcing religious conversion of individuals belonging to SC/ST categories through ‘inducement’ and ‘blackmail’.
The catch, however, lies in its notion of consent — for voluntary conversions, an individual would have to seek permission from the District Magistrate, who would examine the circumstances under which the conversion was being sought. Dubbed as an “anti-conversion” bill, the law has come under fierce criticism of those opposing the Hindutva brigade.
‘Ghar wapsi’ of the tribals
The basis for the formation of Jharkhand was the protection of the rights of tribal communities who were being neglected in undivided Bihar. Even with a significant tribal population, Jharkhand rules over them, not for them.
Tribals in the state either worship nature (Sarna) or follow Christianity. The Sarna tribals do not belong to a branch of Hinduism and cannot be incorporated within its fold. They are, however, counted under ‘Hindu’ in the Census. The “grand Hindu vision” seeks to unite the savarna (upper caste), Dalit and tribal communities under a common Hindu umbrella. There is thus a sense of insecurity associated with conversion. ‘Foreign’ religions such as Christianity and Islam are seen as aggressively expanding in India, converting and proselytising. A mass ghar wapsi (bringing back to the Hindu fold) of Muslims was thus conducted in Uttar Pradesh, to right the ‘wrong’. The Jharkhand anti-conversion Act is the legalisation of ghar wapsi.
The fact that the approval of the District Magistrate (failing which, one may be punished with imprisonment up to one year or a fine which may extend to Rs. 5,000, or both) is required to prove consent in a conversion is in itself an infringement of the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of conscience.
Breaking tribal unity
Tribals in India are not just numerically a minority, but also ethnically diverse. They subscribe to a multiplicity of faiths and speak a variety of languages. The collective bargaining power of this section of society is located in its lowest common denominator.
Critics of the law are thus wary of the fact that it pits one community against the other. The Church is seen as a predator, encroaching on the sacred faith of the ‘indigenous tribals’. This demonisation of the Church creates tensions within the community. Christians, in turn, criticise the Hindutva brigade for trying to incorporate the Sarna tribals within the Hindu fold, which is also the view of the Sarna community which resists this.
Protecting the womb
Section 4 of the Act states that “Provided that in case the offence is committed in respect of a minor, a woman or a person belonging to Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, the punishment shall be imprisonment to the extent of four years and fine up to one hundred thousand rupees.”
The special emphasis on women and girls must be noted here. Women are seen as the embodiment of purity, the womb, in a community. A woman belonging to an in-group procreating with a man from an outgroup is bound to tear the social fabric apart. In a patriarchal society, once a woman is married, she is seen as the property of her husband and his community. The child is also then associated with the ‘other’ culture. A fear thus surrounds women’s sexuality.
Women are also the torchbearers of the community, giving birth to and shaping their offspring who are the future of the grouping. ‘Losing’ a woman to another religion by conversion would be akin to what is colloquially termed as “love jihad”. The religion loses another vessel for its progeny, thus the enhanced punishment and insecurities. The law seems to draw on patriarchal notions of womanhood to ‘protect’ them from the ‘other’.
The Jharkhand law raises important questions about religion in India. It problematises the notion of agency — is the acceptance of material benefits tantamount to coercion? Is accepting relief from abject poverty a form of exploitation? The trope of a poor man knowing no faith holds much value here.
Does the Act create hostility towards conversion where none existed? Faith can be seen as a spectrum. Several tribal communities coexist in preserving their sacred faith, but for some, this may also be oppressive. Dalits born into the Hindu fold, for instance, often convert to Buddhism en masse to emancipate themselves. Similarly, individuals may want to leave the Sarna way of life and join Christianity, simply out of their own beliefs or notions of freedom under the Church. Is this a legitimate area for the state to legislate in? The enabling function of the law becomes disabling in this regard.
New Delhi and Ranchi still patronise the tribals. By robbing them of the free will to worship as they please, they force their own prioritisation of values on the tribals — faith over and above all else.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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