The Indian state of Karnataka has passed an anti-conversion law that criminalises religious conversions solicited through force, fraud or allurement.
The law, known formally as the Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, was passed by the upper house of the state legislature (the Karnataka Legislative Council) on 15 September.
The passing of this law makes permanent the provisions of a temporary anti-conversion ordinance announced in May 2022.
That anti-conversion ordinance was being challenged by Christian groups in the Karnataka High Court.
The law carries a punishment of five years’ imprisonment and a minimum fine of 25,000 rupees (£275; $315; €315) for those who solicit religious conversions using “force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means” or “by a promise of marriage”.
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 according to the Hindu caste system), the offence is punishable with a maximum of ten years in prison and a fine of 50,000 rupees.
Anyone who wishes to change religion must inform the authorities of the reasons for their conversion 30 days before making the change.
Violation of religious freedom
Opposition parties argued that the bill violates Article 25 of the Indian constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.
However, Karnataka Home Minister Araga Jnanendra argued that the Supreme Court of India “has said that freedom of religion does not allow for forced conversions. There is freedom to convert but it should not be under coercion and allurements.”
The bill had been passed by the lower house of the state legislature (the Karnataka Legislative Assembly) on 23 December 2021. However, the governing party did not at that time have a majority in the upper house with which to complete the passage of the bill into law.
Ten other Indian states have similar anti-conversion laws, some of which have been in place for several years. The most recent state to adopt such a law prior to Karnataka was Haryana in March 2022.
Anti-conversion legislation does have a legitimate purpose – to prohibit seeking converts through force, fraud or allurement – but extremists appear to see no difference between such underhand activities and genuine evangelism, missionary work and sharing of faith.
“They attack our churches, social institutions and the faithful by creating a false impression that Christians are illegally converting poor people,” said a church leader in Karnataka.
The Karnataka bill is stricter than comparable legislation in other states, including, for example, more stringent punishments and an expanded definition of “allurement”.
In the Karnataka bill, “allurement” includes not only the promise of cash or the offer of aid in exchange for religious conversion, but suggestions of a “better lifestyle”, that a person faces “divine displeasure”, or that one religion or faith is superior to another.
“Allurement” can therefore be interpreted in such a way as to criminalise the Gospel message that repentance and faith in Christ leads to forgiveness of sin and everlasting life.
There are concerns that any future anti-conversion legislation will follow the precedent of Karnataka.
An Indian legal expert has argued that all religions and faiths offer spiritual blessings and benefits, that therefore “a ban on conversion motivated by any sort of gain is in effect a ban on all conversion”, which in turn leaves India’s constitutional commitment to freedom of religion as “a dead letter”.