Early this month, the state government in Jharkhand, northern India, introduced a new Freedom of Religion Bill.
At first glance, the name of this bill suggests an important step forward in human rights for India, but it’s actually the opposite. The bill is a cleverly disguised anti-conversion law, and it’s not the first to be introduced in the country.
Despite the fact that the Indian constitution clearly defines and protects the freedom to practice and propagate religion, radical members of both national parties — Congress and the BJP — have already managed to pass anti-conversion laws in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh.
When the new bill passes in Jharkhand — a draft has already been approved by the Cabinet — anyone found guilty of the vague crime of converting people could be sentenced to a minimum three years in jail.
Barring the general justification that these laws are intended to protect vulnerable people from fraudulent conversion through “allurement” or “coercion,” there’s no doubt the primary suspects and assumed perpetrators are Christians. Implicit in the anti-conversion laws is the assumption that there’s a foreign Christian agenda to convert Indians and that the tribals and Dalits — also known as “untouchables” — are especially susceptible to conversion schemes.
Perhaps the anti-conversion laws stem out of a suspicion against Christianity based on the history of colonial British rule; or perhaps they’re fueled out of a fear that religion will split the country, as it did during the India-Pakistan partition.
Yet Indian Christians — who are as native to India as any other religious group — do not condone or support any forced or fraudulent conversions. Neither do they tolerate or entertain any idea that sows national division. As Christians, we assert the fundamental right of every individual to choose what he or she believes. We also love our country, and are committed to its unity. There’s no schism between being a Christian and an Indian — Christianity has existed in India for 2,000 years, tracing its origins all the way back to the Apostle Thomas, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples.
The problem when government imposes restrictions on religion is that it actually creates the conflict it’s attempting to prevent. In fact, academic studies have proven that religious freedom is essential for peace. In “The Price of Freedom Denied,” authors Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke note, “The higher the degree to which governments and societies ensure religious freedoms for all, the less violent religious persecution and conflict along religious lines there will be.”
A majoritarian political appeasement and religious homogeneity, which the anti-conversion laws promote, is a step toward division, not unity. These bills increase local misuse of the law and attacks on Christians and churches by extremists. They sully the image of India globally
Furthermore, and most salient to India’s economic aspirations, religious freedom is good for business
Carmel U. Chiswick, a research professor of economics at George Washington University, points out that religious freedom is necessary to create an adaptive economic environment where entrepreneurs can be successful. “Economic freedom and religious freedom are thus mutually complementary, suggesting that countries with religious freedom have a comparative advantage for adapting to new economic opportunities,” Ms. Chiswick wrote.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, religious intolerance can have immensely adverse economic effects. “Religious hostilities and restrictions create climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies,” said Brian J. Grim, discussing a 2014 study on whether religious freedom is good for business.
“Perhaps most significant for future economic growth, the study notes that young entrepreneurs are pushed to take their talents elsewhere due to the instability associated with high and rising religious restrictions and hostilities,” Mr. Grim added.
When religious freedom is protected, societies reap the benefits. A 2016 study titled “The Socio-Economic Contributions of Religion to American Society” found that religion contributes more than $1.2 trillion to the U.S. economy. That’s more than the combined revenue of Apple, Amazon, Google and more than half-a-dozen other tech giants. And it isn’t just Christianity, the predominant religion in the United States; it includes Islam, Hinduism and every other major world religion.
History has taught us over and over again government cannot care for all the problems of human societies. The state in India cannot provide for all the old and the retired, neither can it address all the challenges of education and health. Religious institutions have consistently filled the gaps in social services whenever there have been government shortcomings.
In the end, the only role government has when it comes to religion is protecting and promoting religious freedom.
This idea has been stated by two prominent Hindu figures: former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court T.S. Thakur and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Justice Thakur once famously quipped his religion “is nobody else’s business.” And Mr. Modi, in the wake of local attacks against Christians, said, “Our constitution guarantees religious freedom to every citizen and that is not negotiable.”
While politicians may pass anti-conversion laws, Indians need to be reminded that Christianity and Hinduism actually agree on this issue. Both support and allow for freedom of conscience and belief. Anyone who argues otherwise does not represent what Hinduism, which has always been a religion of freedom, stands for.
In the end, we all need to be reminded of this: India’s multireligious identity is our great strength, not our weakness.
• Joseph D’Souza is the moderating bishop of the Good Shepherd Church and Associated Ministries of India. He is president of the All India Christian Council and is the founder and international president of the Dalit Freedom Network.
Read more at Anti-conversion laws will not help India.