A bill to amend the existing anti-conversion law was passed in the Himachal Pradesh Legislative Assembly in India on August 12. According to the new legislation, the punishment for forcibly converting would be increased from seven to ten years. The bill also defines "mass conversions" and forbids them. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act allegedly kept the Hindu population from changing their religion.
The Himachal Pradesh Assembly passed a bill forbidding "mass conversion" and enhancing the maximum punishment to 10 years imprisonment in its 2019 law against any change of religion through force or allurement.https://t.co/nNJEBGBhmn
— Hindustan Times (@htTweets) August 13, 2022
The BJP-led state government under Jai Ram Thakur introduced the bill. The amendment bill further tightens the provisions of the Himachal Pradesh Religious Freedom Act of 2019, which came into force 18 months ago. The bill also proposes that no police officer below the rank of a sub-inspector shall investigate complaints made under the law. The forced conversion of religion will be a non-bailable offense; the trial of such cases will go directly to the session court.
The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act's target is the minority religious communities of the state, in particular, the Christian groups. The bill forbids the lower-caste Hindus from benefiting from the reservation quota in education and employment if a member or a family has converted to Christianity.
The bill has also defined "mass conversions"; if a person converts the religion of two or more people simultaneously, it will come under that category. They will be prosecuted under the new law. This has caused much controversy in the Christian communities as Catholics and other liturgical groups often perform mass baptisms during the Easter vigil for all converts.
Bishop Ignatius Loyola Mascarenhas of Shimla–Chandigarh is disappointed with the changes in the law. He said, "On reading this, I have to say this: Anybody who converts to Christianity is doing so from a strong unflinching personal following of Jesus Christ and very much as a personal conscious decision of divine attraction to Jesus Christ, God's love, compassion, forgiveness, justice, and truth. His death we celebrate in love, His Resurrection from the dead we profess with living faith, His coming in glory we await with unwavering hope. This personal experience makes them embrace Christianity,"
Under the new legislation, any marriage with the sole purpose of converting the spouse would be declared "null and void." To change one's religion after marriage, all the people involved in conversion must provide a month's notice to a local governing magistrate.
Himachal Pradesh is primarily a Hindu state, with 95% of the 6.8 million population belonging to the majority. Since the state's conservative pro-Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party came into power in 2014, minorities have faced many challenges.