For almost the last five decades, Odisha has had the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967 that prohibits the conversion from one religion to another by use of force, inducement or by fraudulent means. Violation of the Act is a cognisable offence, punishable with up to one year of imprisonment or a fine of up to Rs 5,000, or both. If the offence is committed against a minor, a woman or a person belonging to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, the prison term can extend to two years and the fine to Rs 10,000.
“But being a sensitive issue, almost all conversions in the state are happening outside the purview of the law,” says a senior advocate from Kandhamal who does not wish to be named. Kandhamal is where a bloody backlash had taken place in 2008 against alleged conversions. Officially, in the last five years, only two persons have changed their religion in Kandhamal. Another two have applied for conversion under the Act. “Their applications are under process,” says Kandhamal District Collector N Thirumal Naik.
Unofficially, thousands have switched their faith, as portrayed by the district’s demographic profile. Of Kandhamal’s population of 0.73 million, Christians form an estimated 35 to 40 per cent. People don’t take the official route to conversion for fear of being identified and targeted, says the advocate.
“Christians move from village to village and lure poor and innocent people from tribes to change their religion,” says Ramakant Rath, state coordinator, Bajrang Dal. “That is why few have officially applied for change of religion, while lakhs have been converted in the backward tribal areas of the state through the offer of money and access to education and health services,” he alleges.
This is strongly refuted by a pastor of a church in Bhubaneswar who does not want to be identified. He says whosoever has chosen “to follow the path of Jesus has done so of their free will for spiritual fulfillment, without allurement of any material benefits”. About the ‘unofficial’ conversions, he says the Act prohibits conversion by force or allurement. But if one chooses to change ones faith out of will, there is no need for any official application, he adds.
“The administration cannot take action against people who changed their religion willingly,” agrees a senior official. “Action can be taken only against those who forced someone to convert. But in recent years there has been no such complaint against anybody.”