Congress govt in Karnataka repeals controversial anti-conversion law

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In a series of bold political moves, the newly elected Congress government in Karnataka has decided to repeal the controversial Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2022, known popularly as the Karnataka anti-conversion law.

The Congress government led by Siddaramaiah also announced that it would make significant changes to school textbooks and undo the controversial changes brought on by the earlier Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government.

These decisions, fulfilling key campaign promises, while emblematic of the party’s commitment to secularism and inclusivity, have unsurprisingly stirred up a political storm in the state, with the BJP, now in opposition, challenging the announced changes and promising a tough time for the Congress government in the ongoing budget session of the legislative assembly.

History of the anti-conversion law in Karnataka

The anti-conversion law was passed by the BJP government first in December 2021, but it was not cleared as the BJP did not introduce the bill in the upper house of the Legislative Assembly as it lacked the numbers. It then introduced the legislation as an ordinance that was promulgated on May 17, 2022. An ordinance is a temporary law that the Governor of a state can put into effect.

In September 2022, once the BJP had the required numbers in the Legislative Assembly of the state, the law was passed on September 15 and replaced the ordinance, which by then had been challenged at the Karnataka High Court by the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) and the All-India United Christian Forum for Human Rights, Bengaluru through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that argued that the ordinance went against the principles of secularism, exceeded the scope of public order, and violated Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and its propagation. However, with the passing of the bill in September, which effectively replaced the ordinance, the PIL had been rendered infructuous.

The passed anti-conversion law introduced a broader scope for lodging complaints, allowing family members, relatives and even colleagues of the individuals undergoing conversion to file complaints. Violators found guilty of breaking the law would have faced imprisonment ranging from three to five years and a fine of Rs 25,000 for individuals from general categories. However, for conversions involving minors, women, and individuals from the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) communities, the penalties were more severe. Offenders in such cases could have been subject to imprisonment for a period of three to ten years and a fine of Rs 50,000.

This development under the BJP was criticised by many as an infringement on religious freedom. Critics of the law argued that it exhibited discrimination against religious minorities, and specifically targeted Christians.

Archbishop Peter Machado representing the All-India United Christian Forum for Human Rights, speaking to Christian Today said, “Though the anti-conversion bill is applicable on all the communities, it actually targeted the Christian community. We are not as they have painted us to be. We don’t go for forceful and fraudulent conversions, and if there are incidents of forceful or fraudulent conversions, the law must take action against whoever has done so. We object to being maligned and painted as a ‘converting’ type of community and refute such allegations.” 

Additionally, concerns were raised regarding the law’s ambiguity, which granted extensive power to the police in determining who can be arrested and charged under its provisions. Furthermore, there were apprehensions that the law could be misused to target interfaith couples, potentially impeding their ability to marry. Soon after the passing of the law, many Christians were arrested and detained under the provisions of the legislation.

Objecting to the discrimination shown against the Christian community, Archbishop Machado said, “We want to be regarded respectfully because we also have dignity.” Highlighting the Christian contribution in the various fields of education, medical, social, and other fields, he said, “We are running many good institutions by means of education and people have entrusted their children to us. About 90% of the children are non-Christians and we don’t convert them; There is not a single incident of conversion reported from schools and it is the same with our hospitals.”

What now, after the repeal of the law?

Now the announcement of the repeal of the controversial law is being hailed by advocates of religious minorities as a significant victory.

“We are happy about the government’s move to withdraw the bill,” said Archbishop Machado. Appealing for support from the Members of Legislative Assembly, he said, “I would request all the MLAs irrespective of parties to stand by us and see that it is withdrawn.”

However, this decision has also ignited backlash from opposition parties and Hindu religious groups. Hindu seers and leaders in Mangalore, Karnataka expressed their concerns during a press conference and threatened to organise protests against the Congress-led state government if the law is repealed. The Hindu seers also warned the Congress government against alleged reports of repealing the anti-cow slaughter law along with the anti-conversion law.

The religious leaders termed the decision of revoking the anti-conversion law and others along with it as “anti-Hindu” and claimed that it hurt Hindu sentiments. They presaged the government against compromising on Hindu sentiments and stated that widespread protests would be organised by monks statewide if such actions persisted.

The Minister for Animal Husbandry in Karnataka, K Venkatesh, later clarified that there was no plan to repeal the law prohibiting cow slaughter. However, his comments were met with scepticism by lawmakers from the BJP.

The political ramifications of these decisions extend far beyond the government. The BJP which is the chief opposition party would like to capitalise on these issues to rally their base, accusing the Congress government of pandering to minority communities at the expense of the majority’s interests. Hence, the ongoing legislative assembly session in Karnataka is likely to be contentious. The BJP has already staged protests against the Congress government and will also protest the withdrawal of the anti-conversion legislation. It is possible that the session will be disrupted. The Congress government, however, has said that it is committed to fulfilling its campaign promises.

The potential impact of these decisions on the state’s social fabric could also be significant. On one hand, they could foster greater inclusivity and religious freedom, both crucial elements of a pluralistic society. On the other hand, handled insensitively, they risk polarising communities further.

“We welcome the decision of repealing the anti-conversion legislation. These laws also exist in other states and are prone to misuse by anti-social elements and have caused considerable problems to the minority communities in these states. We hope that the repeal of this law in Karnataka shows the rest of the country how unnecessary, discriminatory, and politically motivated these laws are and would lead to the laws being repealed in other states too,” said the Reverend Vijayesh Lal, General Secretary of EFI.

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