Tamil Nadu bans forced conversions
IN AN effort to discourage the conversion of low-caste Hindus to Islam and Christianity, the government of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu passed a local law on October 5th banning such conversions if they are made by force or “allurement”. Signalling a break with the state's history of tolerant secularism, the move has been widely seen as an attempt by the chief minister, Jayalalitha Jayaram, to strengthen her ties with India's ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has long advocated a ban on religious conversions. Those convicted will face a fine of up to 100,000 rupees (about $2,100) and up to four years in jail.
The ban appears to have been prompted by the conversion to Christianity in September of a number of untouchables, mostly women, in the Tamil Nadu city of Madurai. Then a group of low-caste Hindus in a village near Kanchipuram threatened to convert to Islam after they were prevented from worshipping in a nearby Hindu temple. The state's best-known case occurred in 1981 when an entire village of untouchables converted to Islam. While Hindu nationalists claimed that the converts were bribed, a government investigation concluded that they probably simply wanted to cut free from the discriminatory caste system.
For some, conversion is a means of improving their social and economic status. While the Tamil Nadu government says that the ban will counteract attempts to create communal tension under the banner of religious conversion, Christian and Muslim groups argue that it will simply infringe on a person's constitutional right to practise and propagate any religion of their choice. On his visit to India this month, the pope stressed the need for religious freedom. However, his call on his followers to further the spread of Christianity may have heightened Hindu nationalists' fears of future mass conversions.