Christian groups have welcomed a surprise announcement by a nationalist chief minister of a state in north-east India that he will ensure that a law preventing conversions from one faith to another is repealed.
Pema Khandu, a Buddhist who heads the nationalist BJP-led state government in Arunachal Pradesh, told an audience of more than 2,000 Catholics that he would have the 1978 Freedom of Religion Act repealed in the next session of the Legislative Assembly.
He said the law, which, in sharp contrast to its name, places heavy restrictions on religious conversions, “could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians”. (In India, talk of “secularism” relates to treating all religions with equal respect, rather than the separation of religion and politics.)
Khandu told the audience, “Though I have been told that the law has been never implemented … in future, it could be misused by a chief minister, chief secretary or DGP [director general of police].”
He added: “Any misuse of the law leading to the torture of people could trigger large-scale violence in the state and could break Arunachal into pieces.” Between the 1960s and 1980s some Christians in the state were subjected to torture, public beatings and detention, as their activity was resisted amid concerns of exploitation and the erosion of traditional cultures.
The 1978 act prohibits “conversion from one religious faith to any other … by use of force or inducement or by fraudulent means and for matters connected therewith”, and provides for imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of up to 10,000 rupees (US$150).