BJP government's anti-conversion gaze shifts from central to Northeast India

"In 1991, the proportion of Indian Religionists is reduced to less than 60 percent, while that of Christians has risen to nearly 40 percent," a think-tank close to the BJP noted recently.

Published: 05th November 2022 08:08 PM  |   Last Updated: 05th November 2022 08:16 PM   |  A+A-

Northeast vote bank

Image for representational purpose. (Express Illustration)

That the BJP is less than keen to have Christian missionaries operating amidst India's tribal population, which constitutes 8.61% of the country's total inhabitants, would be to grossly understate a point.  

The BJP government, and much before it came into power, the RSS, have long been suspicious of NGOs and charities funded by overseas contributions and their foot soldiers on ground in India. No efforts have been spared to tighten curbs on them, including placing outright bans on their functioning.

Indeed, as part of stated government policy, BJP believes that foreign-funded NGOs are barely disguised attempts by Christians using charity to convert impoverished Hindus and tribals.  

Naturally, in such circumstances, Northeast India, where the reported conversion of tribals to Christianity has been the highest, remains an area of special interest for the ruling party -- in particular Assam, the gateway to her seven sister states -- Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura.

On October 28, seven German nationals were detained at a private resort near Assam's Kaziranga National Park, the famed wildlife sanctuary, for violating India's visa rules by 'carrying out' Christian missionary work on tourist visas, instead of the mandatory missionary or 'M' visas. The Golaghat district SP, under whose jurisdiction Kaziranga falls, was quoted as saying that the "Germans have tourist visas and they cannot carry out any missionary work on tourist visas."

Officials say they will be deported to Kolkata and from there on to their country. The seven attended religious congregations in Tinsukhia, Karbi Anglong and Margherita and were scheduled to attend another function in Tezpur.

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Astonishingly, this comes in the same week when three Swedish nationals were detained at Namrup for participating in a religious gathering, again on tourist visas.

Clearly, for the BJP, the rapid Christianisation of Northeast remains a matter of concern. Chennai-based Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank close to the saffron camp, in a recent report, deconstructing the 2011 National Census, concluded that "the most dramatic story of the twentieth century is that of the Northeastern states…in 1901, Indian Religionists formed more than 90 percent of the population of these states, while Christians formed less than 2 percent. In 1991, the proportion of Indian Religionists is reduced to less than 60 percent, while that of Christians has risen to nearly 40 percent."

While the BJP's, and earlier the Jan Sangh's, principal anti-conversion thrust among tribals was once Chhattisgarh-based, the focus has now shifted to Northeast India for obvious reasons. The 2011 Census puts Arunachal Pradesh's tribal population at 68.79%, Mizoram at 94.94%, Meghalaya at 86.15%, Nagaland at 86.46%, Tripura at 31.76%, and Sikkim at 33.72%, underlining the tribal dominance of the region.  

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The arrival of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in 2014 and the rise of the BJP has led to a serious anti-conversion push. Since 2017, the year the Supreme Court upheld the Right to Privacy of every individual as a fundamental right in the Justice KS Puttuswamy judgment, five BJP-ruled states have enacted anti-conversion laws or amended their existing laws to check conversion.

In February 2022, the BJP government in Haryana approved the draft Haryana Prevention of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Bill, 2022, joining a list of states ruled by it that have done the same.

The draft Bill, like the anti-conversion laws in other BJP-ruled states such as UP, MP, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Gujarat, claims to address forcible conversions, though the government has not submitted any concrete figures about the scale of conversion. As of date, nine states have enacted laws against conversion.    

In December 2021, the government refused to renew the foreign-funding licence for the Missionaries of Charity, the Christian-order founded by Mother Teresa, only to rescind its decision two weeks later. In October 2020, the home ministry had cancelled foreign funding of Harvest India, a Christian missionary organization, for violating Foreign Contribution Regulation At (FCRA) rules. Officials claimed that Harvest India had more than 1,500 community centres functioning across the country for proselytising purposes, in addition to 1,500 and 2,000 pastors engaged in conversion activities.

According to foreign consultants Bain & Co, which based its estimate on figures available till 2019, the Modi government crackdown on foreign funding had resulted in a massive 40% decline in fund flows for 'social upliftment' projects between 2014 to 2017-18.

These are troubled times for foreign visitors. A trip to Varanasi or Ayodhya may not invite scrutiny, but a visit to a Christian or Islamic congregation just might.

Last month, the Supreme Court sought a government response to a petition that pleaded for strict action against 'religious conversion through fraud and intimidation'. It is unlikely to translate immediately into a national law against conversions to Christianity and Islam, but the optics are all there.  

Of course, in the high-decibel polemic on conversions, the question as to why such a large part of the Indian population -- low-caste Hindus and tribals -- continue to remain impoverished more than seven decades after Independence, is understandably, a non-issue.

(Ranjit Bhushan is a senior journalist. These are the writer's views.)

India Matters


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