By Matters India Reporter
Banderdewa: Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu on June 28 announced that his government would repeal the anti-conversion law the northeastern Indian state passed 40 years ago.
“The anti-conversion law could undermine secularism and is probably targeted towards Christians,” said Khandu while assuring he would introduce steps to repeal the draconian law in the next assembly session to prevent its misuse in future by irresponsible officials.
Khandu was speaking at the tenth death anniversary of Prem Bhai, a Benedictine missionary who is considered the “Saint Paul” of Arunachal Pradesh. He endured repeated arrest, imprisonment, beatings and wore disguises to evangelize in the northeastern state.
Born Henry Gaikwad in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, the missionary was popularly known as Prem Bhai (loving brother). He died on June 28, 2008, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, following a heart attack the previous day. He was 45 at the time of his death. He was buried in Banderdewa, a village near the Arunachal Pradesh capital of Itanagar.
The chief minister said although he had not heard of Prem Bhai earlier, the testimonies of many about the Christian missionary’s efforts to promote communal harmony, peace and love among the people of Arunachal Pradesh have impressed him.
Khandu, 38, expressed concern about the persecution Christians faced because of the infamous law against conversion in Arunachal Pradesh, especially when the state was a territory directly ruled by the federal government.
The Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act or the Anti-Conversion Law was passed by the state Assembly in 1978.
It says no person should convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to any other religious faith by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor should any person abet any such conversion.
Violation of the law would incur imprisonment up to two years and fine up to 10,000 rupees.
The chief minister expressed surprise that the discriminatory law against Christians had not been repealed, even though it was not being enforced. He said that in the future there could be a chief minister, chief secretary or director general of police who could have malicious intent, to misuse the Act.
“Any misuse of the law leading to torture of people could trigger large-scale violence in the state and could break Arunachal into pieces,” the chief minister warned.
Nine prelates from northeastern India were among more than 1,000 people who attended the function titled ‘Prem Milan’ (love gathering) held at Holy Trinity Catholic Church at Banderdewa. The Arunachal Pradesh Catholic Association organized the program to pay tribute to the great missionary who worked in the state for almost 25 years despite government laws.
On the occasion, the chief minister announced a donation of 1 million rupees from his personal family trust for the Holy Trinity Ashram founded by Prem Bhai at Banderdewa. “Prem Bhai today commands respect not only in Catholic community but across all denominations of Christian society and also among different faiths,” he noted.
Earlier, the chief minister laid a wreath on the casket of the missionary inside the church. He later stood solemnly for a few seconds with folded hands praying for peace of the departed soul.
He called Prem Bhai a saint who brought tremendous changes in Nyishi society and contributed to development of Arunachal with his humanitarian service.
Although Arunachal has 26 tribes, as many dialects and several religions, the state has never witnessed sectarian violence so far. This was largely because of the “sobering influence” of religious leaders, be they Buddhists, Christians, Ramkrishna Mission or the local religion Donyi Polo, Kandu said. He expressed the hope that this cordial atmosphere would continue in the future too.
Acknowledging the contributions of different missionaries in the development of Arunachal, Khandu said his government was willing to help organizations that help in people’s advancement.
Giving a call to shun money culture in politics, the chief minister appealed all not to choose leaders who try to buy votes. “A leader who buys vote will never deliver but will try to earn back his money while in power,” the chief minister said.
Khandu urged religious leaders to convey this message to their people since they enjoy people’s respect. “If we politicians speak on money culture, people will interpret it politically,” he added.
Khandu belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian people’s party), the political arm of rightwing Hindu groups. The party has enacted stricter anti-conversion laws in several Indian states.The latest and ninth was Jharkhand in eastern India on September 5, 2017.
Prem Bhai had covered more than 45,000 kilometers on foot, wearing sandals made from tires. He preached the Gospel, baptized more than 25,000 people and built 128 churches in the state.
He was arrested eight times, imprisoned five times, and was attacked by people who opposed Christianity as well as by wild beasts during his journeys. However, on two occasions, police officers took the missioner to their homes and asked for baptism.
After completing his bachelor´s degree in commerce, he joined a few religious congregations but left all of them seeking “something more challenging.”
In 1980, he joined Santi Vanam, a Benedictine Ashram in Tamil Nadu state, southern India.
Brother Gaikwad came to Arunachal Pradesh in 1982 and began visiting villages.
Arunachal Pradesh borders Bhutan, China and Myanmar. The state has two Catholic dioceses — Itanagar and Miao.