On 10 September, just before he was unceremoniously dethroned by his party, then Chief Minister of Gujarat made a last-ditch effort to placate the Hindutva hardliners by emphatically stating that his government is “dealing strictly with those who trap Hindu girls and elope with them.” Then we have had a Bishop from Kerala who directly accused Muslims for making ‘Catholic’ girls in the State, victims of ‘love and narcotic jihad’.
Both the Bishop and the former BJP Chief Minister are wrong on several counts; their words are patently unconstitutional; they are reflective of a patriarchal mindset which regards an adult Catholic/Hindu woman as a ‘moron’ who is unable to think and decide for herself: be it in marrying the person whom she loves or for that matter embracing the religion of her choice.
Both have absolutely nothing substantive to prove their point; the Bishop is unable to say how many Kerala Catholic girls have married Hindus or people from other faiths; or just left the Catholic Church. In a lead article (Deccan Herald,15 September) “Kerala: The Church and the Hindutva entente?”, N.K. Bhoopesh, writes, “While the controversy around ‘narcotic jihad’ and ‘love jihad’ continued unabated, Asianet News published a research report on the status of religious conversions in the state between January 2021 and September 2021. Based on the data from the government gazette, the report stated that a significant chunk of the conversions took place from Christianity to Hinduism and not Islam, as suspected by the Church leaders. Of the 449 people who converted to other faiths, according to the report, 116 Christians converted to the Hindu religion. Only 45 of those who converted from Christianity chose Islam. Of those 116 Christians who converted to the Hindu religion, the majority are Dalits, laying bare the caste prejudices in the Christian Church in Kerala. These are facts based on official reports. However, those who attempt to take political mileage by pitting one group against another and the ones who fall prey to divisive agenda seldom care about the facts”. Hard facts, but true!
The Bishop should first address the scandals: financial and sexual within the Church; and the former CM the dismal state of affairs on every possible front in Gujarat (the entire Gujarat Council of Ministers was changed on 16 September is evidence of this). Both the Church and the Sangh Parivar should take a visible and vocal stand in championing the rights (particularly, dignity and equality) of women in the Church and the country. An online statement ‘Time to Sow Seeds of Peace not Strife’ signed by several eminent Catholic Women of India has been doing the rounds. The concluding para of this says, “We, the undersigned Catholic women are deeply concerned about the Church becoming a counter-witness and so, we urge the ecclesiastical leadership in Kerala and at the national level to take immediate steps that will heal the wounds caused by this controversy. We hope that this crisis becomes for the Church a moment of grace to commit itself once again with renewed passion to the mission of the 'Kingdom of God' founded on justice, truth and inclusive love as shown by Jesus Christ”.
There seems to have some ‘concern’ on the part of the Church for women. But can genuine concern be selective? What is the stand of the Church on several nuns who have committed suicide (and even murdered)? What about the millions of women all over the country who are raped and brutalised, subject to domestic violence and treated as second-class citizens? As one prepares for the three-year Synod in the Catholic Church, will women have an equal, participative and decisive role in the deliberations? Should we not look at the way faith is nurtured in the family and even in the Catechesis of the Church; is the faith of our young women so shallow? If Kerala women are marrying Muslim boys, should one not find out what is ‘wrong’ with the Catholic men?
In defence of the Bishop, some say he was taken out of context; what he meant was for just a “few”. Nobody seemed to have informed him that word ‘jihad’ is a sacred term and should not be used derogatively. To top it all, the Diocese of Thamarassery has published a Catechism Book for Students of classes X to XII which speaks in a very unchristian manner of Muslims. The Diocese has since tendered an apology. But is that enough? Has the Church taken the letter and spirit of ‘Fratelli Tutti’ seriously? These pathetic utterances will also have a negative effect on Canon Law and the Church’s mission of proclamation. Where are the Christian voices of sanity and moderation which reconciles and heals, which unite rather than divide? It is clear that the so-called bogey of ‘Love Jihad’ is meant to be kept centre-stage. It is an insidious strategy by the Sangh Parivar to defocus on real issues plaguing the country.
The questions the Bishop and the former Gujarat CM need to ask are: If two mature consenting adults would like to marry, does the State or the Church have the right to stop them from doing so? If a Dalit girl wants to embrace Buddhism, since it is the religion of her husband and will perhaps lead to enhancing the quality of her life, does she have the right to do so? Or for that matter, if a Christian girl wants to freely embrace Islam after marrying a Muslim, does she also have the right to do so? Why should the State (with its brutal mechanism and vigilantes) or the Church, interfere in matters which are personal and private and clearly violative of Article 21: the right to privacy. On 24 August 2017, the Supreme Court, in a historic judgement, declared the right to privacy as a fundamental right, protected under the Indian Constitution. In declaring that this right stems from the fundamental right to life and liberty, the Court's decision has far-reaching consequences for every citizen.
On 19 August, in a landmark interim order, the Gujarat High Court stayed the operation of several sections of the Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021, including the provision that termed inter-faith marriages as means for forceful conversion. A division bench headed by Chief Justice Vikram Nath (who has now been elevated to the Supreme Court) stayed sections 3, 4, 4A to 4C, 5, 6 and 6A of the amended Act pending further hearing, saying they "shall not operate merely because a marriage is solemnised by a person of one religion with a person of another religion without force or by allurement or by fraudulent means and such marriages cannot be termed as marriages for the purposes of unlawful conversion".
A week later (26 August), the Court turned down the State Government's plea seeking rectification of its recent order in which it stayed the operation of Section 5 of the new anti-conversion law. That Section of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021 mandates that religious priests must take prior permission from the district magistrate for converting any person from one religion to another. Moreover, the one who got converted also needs to "send an intimation" to the district magistrate in a prescribed form. "We do not find reason to make any changes in the order passed by us on August 19”, the same division bench stated after hearing the arguments put forth by State Advocate General.
The recent interim orders passed by the Gujarat High Court are indeed path-breaking and will surely be used as a precedence in the challenge of the other draconian and unconstitutional ‘anti-conversion’ laws (or by its more innocuous sounding sobriquet ‘freedom of religion’ or the more derogative ‘love jihad’) which exist in some of the States today and is high on the agenda of the ruling regime as a national legislation. On 8 September 2021, the Gujarat High Court sent a notice to the Government as to why it should not quash the first ‘love jihad’ case under the newly amended law. The woman concerned has petitioned the court to do so; she says that the charges made against her husband were fabricated by the police.
The ‘Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003’ was passed by the Gujarat Assembly on 26 March 2003.The law is easily one of the most draconian ones in the history of any democracy in the world and was piloted by the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, now the Prime Minister. The main argument is not whether one has the right ‘to convert another’; but whether a citizen has the right to freely choose a religion of one’s choice. Article 25 of the Constitution of India guarantees the freedom of conscience, the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion to all citizens and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance”.
The amendments were passed on 1 April 2021 by the Gujarat Assembly amidst strong protests from the Opposition members. If it not for the fact that the original act of 2003 and its present amendments are violative of the Constitution, some of the provisions are downright ridiculous; for example, ‘The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill’ state that, “there are episodes of religious conversion promising better lifestyle, divine blessings and impersonation. There is an emerging trend in which women are lured to marriage for the purpose of religious conversion.”
Several articles in the original Act and amendments are contentious and blatantly unconstitutional. The point of ‘better lifestyle, divine blessings or otherwise’: this certainly has far-reaching implications and can have a whole range of interpretations. Let’s talk about ‘better lifestyle’: who decides what is a so-called ‘better lifestyle’? Take the instance of a person whose original religion dictated plenty of fast and penance – now s/he embraces a religion which say, allows eating plenty and perhaps a different type of food and also with less rigorous penance; all these make the ‘converter’ a happier person – could this be interpreted as a ‘better lifestyle?’
Then there is the aspect of ‘divine blessing’; for centuries, people from all walks of life have been invoking God’s blessings on each other! So, does it now mean that in Gujarat we can no longer say “God bless you!” or invoke God’s blessings (or divine intervention) on another for whatever the reason? Strange indeed! Then comes preaching: the sermons and homilies that Christian priests, religious and catechists give all the time. One speaks about ‘heaven’, ‘eternal life’, ‘finding peace in God’ and so on – dos these contravene the newly amended law? The opposite is ‘divine displeasure’ which may come under this ambit: can one say that one may go to ‘hell’ if one does not obey the commandments of God or maybe even embrace a particular religion? The icing on the cake is the word ‘otherwise’ – what does it mean legally, is it tenable or does one leave it to the whims and fancies of the so-called interpreter and judge of the law?
Any informed citizen knows that there are ample provisions in the CrPC to deal with anything to do with force and fraud, bribery and corruption, threat and kidnap – why are these not being used to deal with the bogey of ‘love jihad’? On the other hand, why are these not being used against our corrupt, high and mighty politicians and other vested interests? They have made promises galore, cheated the poor and the marginalised of what is rightfully theirs and looted the nation. Many of them should have been imprisoned for life, long ago.
The amended Gujarat Freedom of Religion law has provisions like the ‘offfences to be cognizable and non-bailable’ which seem to taken right out from another draconian and anti-people legislation the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). We the people of India are certainly experiencing difficult days under this regime. These laws are against democratic tenets, the nation’s secular fabric and the fundamental rights of citizens. It reveals the agenda of a fascist regime that is clearly afraid that a thinking and discerning citizenry will expose their hegemony on the marginalised and the minorities, the Dalits and Adivasis of the country; above all, it is a pitiable attempt to defocus from the urgent and pressing issues which are destroying the nation today. It is lamentable that the Church becomes the mouthpiece of the nefarious designs of the Hindutva forces. The so-called ‘love jihad’ is a bogey.
The Bishop (and the Church) needs to wake up to the Gospel of Jesus and should also realise that we have a Constitution which is sacred and meant to protect the rights of all citizens. The well-known human rights organization, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), recently made some excellent T-shirts with a catchy slogan “Tera Love, Love! Mera Love, Jihad?” That says it all.
(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation & peace activist/writer.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )