Bengaluru: The legislative committee on backward classes and minorities welfare in Karnataka has asked for detailed information on all churches, priests and missionaries in the state, sparking vehement opposition from the minority Christian community.
At a committee meeting earlier this week, BJP legislator Gulihatti D. Shekhar asked authorities to submit reports on all churches and their activities, seeking answers on whether they are authorised and if they are involved in forced conversions. Shekhar chaired the committee meeting in the absence of Chairperson Dinakar Keshav Shetty.
“It is not a survey exactly but we have sought information on how many churches are authorised and how many aren’t. The minorities department has told us that there are 1,790 churches but in many places churches have refused to provide documentation. We as a committee reserve the right to review all issues concerning backward classes and minorities,” Shekhar told ThePrint.
When asked if the exercise was specifically to target conversions, he did not deny it.
“Of course it is. People from backward classes, poor families are being lured into conversion. Even as early as 2008 when I was minister, people from my community (Lambani) were being converted with allurement. I was even threatened for interfering. Now the instances have increased,” Shekhar said.
The committee has asked district officials — especially from Yadgir, Chitradurga and Vijayapura, which have a sizeable SC/ST population — to submit details of all churches and priests within a month.
However, Opposition MLAs have alleged that the decision was taken without any consultation.
“The decision was unilateral and taken by a member in the absence of the chairman of the committee. None of us was consulted,” said Rizwan Arshad, Congress MLA and member of the committee. He added that the committee’s tenure will end in November and the whole exercise was futile.
“The job of the committee is to protect rights of minorities and backward classes and not to put them under surveillance. Shekhar is misusing the committee to displace his personal issues,” Arshad said.
The “personal reason” refers to Shekhar’s mother, Ratnamma, who had converted to Christianity in 2014, following the death of her husband and another son.
On 11 October, however, she returned to Hinduism. Shekhar had raised the issue of conversion, quoting his mother as an example, in the Karnataka legislative assembly in September.
“My mother was in a fragile mental state after losing her husband and a son. She was lured to the church and soon Christian iconography started making its way into our house. Even her ringtone was Christian hymns. It was embarrassing for me and my family,” Shekhar told ThePrint.
Following Shekhar’s outburst in the assembly, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai had assured the House that his government would consider introducing legislation to further strengthen laws against forced conversions.
Christian community submits memorandum to CM Bommai
Christians comprise 1.87 per cent of the state’s population (2011 Census). The legislative committee’s directions have been opposed by the Christian community in Karnataka, with Reverend Peter Machado, Archbishop of Bengaluru, saying that the government is succumbing to pressures from fundamentalist groups.
“We are sad that the Hon’ble Chief Minister, Shri Basavaraj Bommai, whom we regard highly as a broad-minded and enlightened person, succumbs to the pressures from fundamentalist groups, who wish to indulge in disturbing the peace, harmony and peaceful co-existence in the society,” said a statement from Rev. Machado Friday.
On Saturday, a memorandum was also submitted by the archbishop to Chief Minister Bommai not only against the committee’s directive but also the proposed anti-conversion law.
“We serve a notice to you through this memorandum that the entire Christian community will not rest until the draconian order of the Backward Classes & Welfare Department is withdrawn in total,” reads the memorandum, accessed by The Print.
The archbishop also said allegations by the BJP MLA in the assembly regarding conversions have triggered a series of needless attacks on various Christian organisations across the state.
“Stray and sporadic incidents of conversion should not portray the entire community in bad light. The government’s statistics prove beyond doubt that since Independence there has been hardly any increase in the number of Christians and it is all made out to suit the political agenda of some political parties,” noted the memorandum.
It also referred to the several educational institutions and hospitals run by Christian missionaries to highlight the service being provided by the community.
“If the (anti-conversion) bill is passed in the assembly and translated into a law, we fear that it will give way for large-scale uncontrolled communal conflagrations. Fringe elements and communal forces will be let loose and take law into their own hands. Moral policing will take precedence and will be the order of the day. All-round attacks on religious congregations will be rampant disturbing the peace and unity in the society,” said the archbishop in the memorandum.
(Edited by Rachel John)