- The Washington Times - Monday, November 11, 2002

NEW DELHI Low-caste Hindus in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu are threatening to embrace Christianity, Buddhism or Islam to protest a new law that outlaws religious conversion.
A bill passed into law by the state legislature last month penalizes those who convert to a religion other than Hinduism with imprisonment and a hefty fine.
While religious minorities in Tamil Nadu plan to challenge the law in court, many Hindus from so-called "untouchable castes," known as Dalits, are threatening to publicly defy the new law.
One group of Dalit Hindus in the state capital, Chennai, said that a group of 10,000 will convert to Buddhism on Dec. 6 if the law is not revoked.
Another group, known as the Dalit Panthers of India [DPI], pledged that 25,000 of its members would become Christians to protest what they called an "unjustified" decree.
"The upper class has been torturing the Dalits for centuries, and now, by passing the bill, the government has decided to shackle us in a society where we are denied even our basic democratic rights," said one Dalit activist, who identified himself by the Christian name Emmanuel.
On Oct. 31, Tamil Nadu became the first but probably not the last Indian state to outlaw religious conversions. Though the law targets conversions "by force, allurement or fraudulent means," opponents say the language offers the means to challenge all conversions to faiths other than Hinduism.
"Even if one changes one's religion of one's own free will, those involved in the conversion can be punished on the ground that it's a case of forced conversion," said M. Karunanidhi a former chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
The new law was welcomed by Hindu fundamentalists, who govern the nation in a coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
"The BJP is strongly of the view that this law is most necessary for the whole country. Lots of money is coming into the country from Islamic organizations to aid conversions," said BJP President M. Venkaiah Naidu.
Ashok Singhal, leader of the World Hindu Council (VHP), hailed the law as a "timely and bold step" and he urged other states to pass similar laws.
The issue of religious conversion has long been a source of strife in India. While federal law allows Indians to change their faith, the ruling BJP makes no secret of its dislike of the practice, while its ruling partner the VHP party views conversions as betrayal.
Opponents of the new law warn it will only trigger an even larger exodus of Hindus to other faiths.
The Global Council of Indian Christians said it was "alarmed by the hurriedly promulgated ordinance," and called it "the most heinous violation of religious freedom aimed at targeting Christian missionaries engaged in poverty alleviation and spreading the light of education."
The All-India Christian People's Forum said that it went against the core of the Constitution. "This ordinance is uncalled for, unwarranted and smacks of a pro-Hindu ideological bias of the government".
"The bill runs foul of Article 25 [25] of the Indian Constitution, which grants freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion to every Indian citizen," the group said.
Dominic Emmanuel, director of New Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, called the measure, "an assault as much on civil rights as on human dignity."
John Daya, secretary-general of the Christian Council in New Delhi, said: "In fact, the only inducements by fraud and fear are those being carried out by [Hindu organizations] in the tribal belt, where innocent tribals are being forced to become Hindus."
Muslims, too, are concerned.
''How can conversions be prevented if an individual is attracted to another religion because of his or her faith in it? Force is never used to convert one to Islam because it is against the basic tenets of [Islam],'' said Maolana Siddikullah Chowdhury, general secretary of the Jamiat-e-Ulema party in Calcutta.
He added that low-caste Hindus converted to Islam simply to "escape discrimination and ill treatment" and not under any coercion.

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