The BJP-led Karnataka government’s decision to conduct a survey on churches to identify “illegal” ones and curb “forced conversions” in the state has received heavy backlash from the Christian community.
While hearing a petition filed by Peoples Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), seeking an interim order to stay the survey on October 25, the Karnataka High Court issued notices to the state government to file its objection within three weeks.
Why was the survey initiated?
In July, the Directorate of Minorities Welfare, asked the deputy commissioners of all districts to conduct a survey on churches. In a notice to concerned officials on July 7, the department said the exercise was mere data collection.
The officials were asked to dig out information related to the churches, their address, geographic location, landholding and survey numbers and names of the pastor or priest in charge.
On October 13, the state legislature committee on Backward Classes and Minorities’ Welfare instructed government authorities and deputy commissioners of districts to conduct another survey on churches, this time to identify “unauthorised” ones in a bid to prevent forced “religious conversions” in the state.
The committee was chaired by BJP MLA Goolihatti Shekhar, who in an Assembly session on September 21 had raised the issue of “forced” religious conversion in Chitradurga district, stating that 15,000 to 20,000 people including his own mother have been converted to Christianity in his constituency.
Quoting data, he had said that the state had 1,790 churches while according to home department around 35 cases of forced conversion have been reported so far.
“The menace of forced conversion is so rampant that the perpetrators are even converting residences into churches and Bible societies. We need to find out the number of such establishments and unauthorised Christian priests and take action against them,” he said.
Incidentally, it was Shekhar who had also ordered a survey on Christian missionaries in the state.
Later, Chief Minister Basavraj Bommai, taking note of the allegation of forceful conversions, said the government would soon introduce a law to ban religious conversions in the state.
Acting on the orders of the state legislature committee, the ADGP of the State Intelligence Department on October 14, issued an internal order, asking all Deputy Superintendents of Police in the state to get more information on “authorised and unauthorised” churches in their respective areas.
Reaction of Christian community
Many Opposition leaders and members of the Christian community have opposed the survey on churches as well as the proposed anti-conversion law, stating the allegations are based on “sporadic and insignificant incidents”.
In September, Bengaluru’s Archbishop Reverend Peter Machado, also the president of Karnataka Region Catholic Bishops’ Council met the chief minister along with a delegation of Catholic bishops to register the community’s protest against the proposed law.
The delegation said that the accusation against the community were false and “malicious” and that a legislation to ban religious conversion would create “unnecessary communal issues and unrest”.
Machado said none of the non-Christian students enrolled in the hundreds of schools, colleges and hospitals that operate under the aegis of each bishop, has ever been advised to get converted to Christianity.
Bommai, who had supported the community during the vandalizing of Churches in Karnataka in 2008, however, had refused to budge from his decision.
Later, in a letter to Bommai on October 14, Machado had said that the community will keep protesting until the government rolls back its order to survey churches.
At a press conference called by the All India Karnataka United Christians Forum for Human Rights on October 25, senior political leaders from the community including Union minister of state Margaret Alva, former home minister KJ George and MLA Vinisha Nero decried the state government’s decision.
A large protest was staged by people from the community in Hubballi demanding a rollback of the decision to introduce an anti-conversion law.
Even though the delegation led by Machado to meet Bommai had asserted that any incident of forced conversion was sporadic, the Archdiocese of Bengaluru assured that he will probe the allegations of 36 forced conversions cited by the home department.
“While most of these allegations are baseless, we will look into these matters to ascertain if there is any veracity in such reported incidents,” he was quoted as saying.
The Bishop’s Council while claiming that the government already has information on all properties from which churches in the state operate, has directed churches to direct all queries asked by the government to their respective diocese.
Later the PUCL filed a petition in the Karnataka High Court, requesting an interim order to stay the survey.
Calling the survey a violation of the Right to Freedom of Religion guaranteed by the Constitution, PUCL had asked why Christians were “picked and chosen for this hostile discrimination”.A division bench of Chief Justice Rity Raj Awasthi and justice Sachin Shankar Magadum, however, observed that there is nothing on record to show that the data has been sought by the Minority Welfare Department to “persecute Christians”.
Refusing to pass an interim order to stay the survey, the court, however, asked the state government to file its objections on the PIL within three weeks of October 25.
The court said it would pass any order only after receiving the government’s reply.