Sixteen people were arrested on Saturday over allegations of trying to convert tribal villagers in Jharkhand’s Dumka district. A case under section 295 (A) of the IPC and Section 4 of Jharkhand Freedom Of Religion Bill, 2017 was registered at the Shikaripara police station on Friday. Shikaripara happens to be one of the country’s most backward areas and a stronghold of Maoists.

16 of the 25 people were arrested, seven among them were women. They were produced before a local court which sent them to 14 days of judicial custody.

According to the complaint registered at the Shikaripara police station by Ramesh Murmu, pradhan of Phool Pahari village, the 16 preachers had arrived in a bus from West Bengal on Thursday evening. Murmu alleged that they put up loudspeakers in the village and began inviting people to gather and that they spoke about Christianity and asked people to join it.

However, Birendra Hembram, one of the preachers, acknowledged that they were spreading the values of Christianity but refuted allegations of trying to proselytise locals.

Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act came into force in the state in September 2017. This is the first major arrest made by the police since the act was implemented last year.

Under the Religious Freedom Act, passed by the Raghubar Das government last year, trying to convert through coercion or allurement is non-bailable offence and doing so can invite three years of imprisonment. If anyone tries to convert a person from Scheduled Caste or Tribe then the jail term would be four years.

Under the law, if a person wants to adopt any other religion then he or she will have to inform the District Commissioner and seek permission for that. If the DC permits, then information about the place and date of conversion along with who would supervise it have to be submitted, the law stipulates.

Apart from Christian organizations and political and social outfits opposed to the BJP, a section of bureaucracy too are strongly against this law. Even many senior BJP leaders have expressed their concerns on this law, saying they might have to pay dearly during coming Federal and State elections.