Varanasi: With the BJP government in Karnataka expected to table an anti-conversion bill during the ongoing winter session of the state legislature, and with reports about a number of attacks on Christians in the state, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai is in the hot seat.
The video of an attack at a church in Belagavi last week has gone viral, further fuelling criticism from the Opposition and minority rights groups that the Bommai government is stoking anti-minority sentiments.
The chief minister, however, disagrees. In an interview with ThePrint, Bommai said that fears around the anti-conversion bill are “unjustified” and the government’s only aim is to prevent forceful or coerced conversions.
“It is not only the Karnataka government that is trying to bring such laws. Other states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat already have laws to ban forced conversions. We considered bringing this law after several cases of forced conversion came to our notice,” Bommai said, adding, “No member of any community has to fear they will be harassed.”
Bommai, who was in Varanasi attending a meeting of chief ministers of BJP-ruled states, also spoke to ThePrint about the recent cryptocurrency controversy in the state and the party’s encouraging performance this week in the legislative council elections.
‘We are not against any religion’
The row over the anti-conversion bill has intensified in recent weeks, with around 25 Bajrang Dal members reportedly barging into a church on 28 November and disrupting a prayer meeting.
A report by the human rights organisation People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) this week further claimed that there were 39 hate crimes against Christians since the beginning of the year.
In November, the Bengaluru archbishop had written to the CM, warning him that the “undesirable and discriminatory” bill would “become a tool for fringe elements” and cause communal unrest.
Bommai told ThePrint that he does not believe this is a “big issue”, and that the majority of people are in favour of an anti-conversion law. He also said that he has done his best to alleviate the fears of the Christian community.
“I have taken everybody into confidence. I have met and assured Christian community leaders that the anti-conversion law is not against any religion. The majority community has demanded it,” Bommai said.
“The law is only against forceful conversion, where allurement is provided. There is no need to fear harassment, but if anybody takes part in forceful conversions, the law will take its course,” he added.
In his letter, Bengaluru Archbishop Peter Machado had pointed out that the proposed law would infringe Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees free profession, practice and propagation of religion, subject to public order, morality and health”.
In October, the PUCL had also petitioned the Karnataka High Court, alleging that the state government was trying to “persecute” Christians by ordering a survey of churches and priests. The survey was ordered by the legislative committee on backward classes and minorities welfare.
‘Was expecting more seats in legislative council, but result good’
When asked about the results of this week’s legislative council elections, in which the BJP bagged 11 out of 25 seats, Bommai said he was pleased.
“It is a good result for us. Although we were expecting 13-14 seats, we have increased our tally and we have improved our performance. We will review our performance in the party organisational meet,” he told ThePrint.
The BJP’s strength in the 75-member legislative council — the upper house of the state assembly — has gone up to 37 (one short of majority) from 32, while the Congress’s tally has dipped from 29 to 26.
This is a relief for the party, which suffered an embarrassing defeat last month in the byelection at Hangal, which falls in the CM’s home district, Haveri. It was the Lingayat leader’s first political test after he took over the chief ministership of Karnataka from B.S. Yediyurappa in late July.
The loss of the seat caused consternation in the BJP since Bommai had camped and campaigned at Hangal for a week.
‘Government had no role in crypto scam’
In November, the Opposition Congress accused the Karnataka government of being complicit in an alleged bitcoin scam.
A hacker called Srikrishna Ramesh allegedly siphoned off Rs 11.5 crore from the Karnataka government’s e-procurement site, leading to allegations of a “cover-up”. Bommai had then discussed the issue with Prime Minister Modi, who advised caution to the CM.
The Karnataka Chief Minister told ThePrint that the bitcoin scam was a “non-issue” in the state. “The investigation is going on. The Opposition is making an issue out of it — it’s their agenda. But, the government has no role in it,” he said.
‘No challenge in 2023 assembly elections’
On a question on how he sees the BJP performing in the next Karnataka assembly elections, due in 2023, Bommai was confident.
“The state government is working with full energy. We have a very good track record in implementing central schemes — we are implementing schemes for the poor, and we have also done a lot for farmers, youths, women, and all sections of society. I don’t see any challenge in the next assembly elections,” he said. “I am confident the people will vote for us and we will form a government with full majority.”
(Edited by Asavari Singh)