THE QUES­TION OF RE­LI­GIOUS FAITH

Chief Min­is­ter Pema Khandu’s an­nounce­ment to scrap the state anti-con­ver­sion law ruf­fles feathers in the Sangh

India Today - - STATES - By Kaushik Deka

On June 28, at a func­tion to mark the 10th death an­niver­sary of Prem Bhai, a revered lo­cal Chris­tian mis­sion­ary, Pema Khandu an­nounced that his gov­ern­ment would re­peal the Arunachal Pradesh Free­dom of Reli­gion Act, passed in 1978 to check pros­e­lyti­sa­tion. The chief min­is­ter said that the law re­strains free­dom of reli­gion and has no place in a sec­u­lar In­dia. “In to­day’s con­text, this act doesn’t have any mean­ing for Chris­tians, indige­nous faiths or any other reli­gion. The act is nei­ther harm­ful nor help­ful to any re­li­gious group,” the chief min­is­ter told in­dia to­day.

The an­nounce­ment evoked strong re­ac­tions across the state. The BJP’s ide­o­log­i­cal par­ent, the Rashtriya Swayam­se­vak Sangh, has asked the chief min­is­ter not to act on his an­nounce­ment. “Khandu may be hop­ing to win Chris­tian votes in the next elec­tions, but a re­peal of this act will be a big­ger threat to the state’s indige­nous tribes than to the Hin­dus. The law was passed to curb ram­pant con­ver­sions, pri­mar­ily from the indige­nous faiths to Chris­tian­ity,” a se­nior RSS pracharak said on con­di­tion of anonymity.

The pracharak quotes cen­sus data to sup­port his ar­gu­ment. Ac­cord­ing to Cen­sus 2011, Chris­tians are the largest re­li­gious group in the state, com­pris­ing 30.26 per cent of the state’s 1.3 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion. Just ten years be­fore that (Cen­sus 2001), they were just 18.7 per cent, be­hind Hin­dus (34.6 per cent) and ‘oth­ers’, mostly the indige­nous Dony­iPolo (30.7 per cent). By 2011, Hin­dus had slipped to 29.04 per cent, ‘oth­ers’ to 26.2 per cent. To put it in con­text, in 1981, 51.6 per cent of the res­i­dents of that state were ad­her­ents of the Dony­iPolo and other lo­cal faiths.

Although the drop in Donyi-Polo num­bers seems star­tling, many ex­perts say its fol­low­ers aban­doned the faith be­cause of its ex­pen­sive rit­u­als. But the RSS man takes it even fur­ther. Ac­cord­ing to him, “The state had no Chris­tians in 1951. Prem Bhai, whose an­niver­sary Khandu at­tended, spent 25 years in the state and was ar­rested and im­pris­oned sev­eral times un­der the law.” Arunachal Pradesh was the

third state, af­ter Odisha (1967) and Mad­hya Pradesh (1968) to en­act an anti-con­ver­sion law. Ut­tarak­hand (2018), Chhattisgarh (2000), Gu­jarat (2003), Hi­machal Pradesh (2007) and Ra­jasthan (2008) have also since passed an­ti­con­ver­sion laws, pro­hibit­ing con­ver­sions by use of force or in­duce­ments.

Pre­dictably, the Chris­tians have wel­comed Khandu’s state­ment. The Arunachal Chris­tian Fo­rum leader Toko Teki feels that Khandu re­alised the fu­til­ity of the law and its ad­min­is­tra­tive mis­use. “When the Hin­dus con­struct a tem­ple, they don’t need any per­mis­sion. But when we want to con­struct a church, the au­thor­i­ties create a lot of hur­dles, thanks to this ir­rel­e­vant law,” he says.

Some prom­i­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tives of indige­nous faiths, how­ever, crit­i­cised the chief min­is­ter, claim­ing it was nec­es­sary to pro­tect tra­di­tional be­lief sys­tems and lo­cal cul­tures. The Indige­nous Faith and Cul­tural So­ci­ety of Arunachal Pradesh and the Ny­ishi Indige­nous Faiths and Cul­tural So­ci­ety, which have led the fight for preser­va­tion of indige­nous faiths such as Donyi-Polo and Rangfra, have, like the RSS, as­cribed Khandu’s move to “vote bank pol­i­tics”.

BJP in­sid­ers say that Khandu is do­ing this to help the Chris­tian-dom­i­nated Na­tional Peo­ple’s Party (NPP) spread its wings in the state. Founded by for­mer Lok Sabha speaker P.A. Sangma in Megha­laya, the NPP is part of the Na­tional Demo­cratic Al­liance and shares power with the BJP in Manipur and Megha­laya. NPP pres­i­dent Con­rad Sangma is the chief min­is­ter of Megha­laya. Khandu, son of for­mer chief min­is­ter Dor­jee Khandu, de­fected from the Congress to join the BJP with 43 MLAs in July 2016. His detractors in the saf­fron party claim he is now plan­ning to join hands with Sangma. Asked about this, the 38-year-old chief min­is­ter laughed it off as “wild spec­u­la­tion”.

“IN TO­DAY’S CON­TEXT, THIS ACT DOESN’T HAVE ANY MEAN­ING FOR CHRIS­TIANS, INDIGE­NOUS FAITHS OR ANY OTHER RELI­GION. THE ACT IS NEI­THER HARM­FUL NOR HELP­FUL TO ANY RE­LI­GIOUS GROUP”

PEMA KHANDU Arunachal Pradesh chief min­is­ter

THE BE­LIEVER CM Khandu at the Prem Bhai memo­rial event

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