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Compass Direct (04/06/06) – The Rajasthan state assembly tomorrow will consider a bill approved in principle that would prohibit “forced or fraudulent” conversions, which Christian groups fear Hindu elements will use against people who legitimately decide to follow Christ.

In other states in India , government officials and Hindu groups have used such legislation to curb voluntary, legal conversions. The Rajasthan Dharma Swatantrik Vidheyak (Rajasthan Religious Freedom Bill) was approved in principle on March 24 but has not been adopted yet as law.

Bulab Chand Kataria, state home minister, told Compass the bill is almost identical to the existing “freedom of religion” acts in other states.

“It is not an anti-conversion bill, as it seeks to help people of all religious communities to practice their freedom of religion, which fraudulent conversions restrict,” he said.

Kataria said the bill would impose a two-to-five year prison sentence and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees (US$1,120) for anyone found guilty of forced or fraudulent conversions. Under the terms of the bill, a person’s original religion would be determined by the religion of his or her ancestors.

Asked if the bill would restrict “re-conversion” or “homecoming” ceremonies held by Hindu extremists to convert Christians to Hinduism, Kataria said the Supreme Court had ruled that a “return” to Hinduism does not constitute conversion. Kataria could not, however, give reference details for the Supreme Court decision.

Hindu extremist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh often conduct these ceremonies, ignoring the fact that most of the tribal Christians involved were originally animist rather than Hindu.

Christians in Rajasthan are extremely concerned about the bill, particularly in the wake of recent state-sponsored harassment of local mission group Emmanuel Mission International (EMI). (See Compass Direct, “BJP Pressured Indian State to Harrass Christians, Panel Finds,” March 21.)

The Rajasthan government, ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), first announced plans to adopt anti-conversion legislation on February 23 last year, after Hindu extremists violently attacked EMI Bible students. (See Compass Direct, “Hindu Extremists in India Assault Rajasthan Christians,” March 18, 2005.)

In a press release, the All India Christian Council (AICC) said the Rajasthan bill would be “a stick used to harass minorities in a state where they already feel insecure.”

“These laws seem to target Dalits and tribal people who convert to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or another religion,” said Dr. Abraham Mathai of the AICC.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC and member of the National Integration Council, said the government must not forget that India , as a member of the United Nations, has publicly acknowledged freedom of religion as a fundamental human right.

Rajendra Singh Rathore, Rajasthan’s parliamentary affairs minister, told Reuters that the bill was prompted by the discovery of an increasing number of forced conversions. “Such conversions always remain a threat to the law and order situation in the state,” he said.

A Worrying Trend

Anti-conversion laws are in force in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh, while Gujarat state has yet to frame rules under which its act can be enforced.

In the Northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, Chief Minister Gegong Apang on March 24 announced in the state assembly that his government would consider whether to repeal or update an anti-conversion law enforced in 1978, the Press Trust of India reported.

Apang made the announcement after ruling Congress Party member and former Chief Minister Mukut Mithi demanded the repeal of the Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1987. Mithi said he had received a memorandum to this effect from leaders of the Christian community in Arunachal Pradesh.

Further south, in Tamil Nadu state, the Federation of Minorities (FoM) on March 22 said the state anti-conversion law was still in force despite claims that the law had been repealed, according to a report in The Hindu national daily.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Selvi J. Jayalalithaa announced the repeal of the state Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act in May 2004, following the poor performance of her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in April 2004 general elections. Jayalalithaa’s party had formed a coalition government with the BJP.

FoM General Secretary Hyder Ali said a temporary government ordinance created to repeal the Act had expired before the state assembly approved it as law.

A state government can temporarily enact, repeal, or amend a law by declaring a new ordinance while the state assembly is not in session, with the approval of the state governor. The state assembly must then approve the ordinance within six months in order for it to be permanently accepted as law.