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Christians and Dalits Mount Legal Challenge to Himachal Pradesh Anti Conversion Law

From Dalit Freedom Network, in association with A.I.C.C. / SC-ST Federations

2/23/07 India (ANS) – Christians and Dalits decided to challenge the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act 2006 in the High Court at a state-wide meeting organized by the All India Christian Council at Shimla on February 22, 2007.

The Governor of Himachal Pradesh, Shri Justice Vishnu Sadashiv Kokje, signed the state law on February 19, 2007. The Bill was passed the state legislature on December 19, 2006. The law is unique as it was generated and passed by the secular Congress party while most other anti-conversion laws have been passed in states ruled by the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Dr. John Dayal, member of National Integration Council and General Secretary of the All India Christian Council, spoke to the media at Shimla, “Fraternal Christian, Dalit and mass movement organizations have decided to take the issue as far as the Supreme Court if we do not get a favorable decision at the state level.”

“The Governor, Chief Minister, as well as the Congress leadership in New Delhi including Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, should rescind the Act which was given Governor’s assent two days ago in a surreptious manner without the matter being discussed at public forum, or even in the state assembly at any length,” continued Dr. Dayal. “It is a matter of shame and concern to Democratic India that a Congress-ruled state such a Himachal Pradesh has enforced this act to target Christians, Buddhists and other religions in the same way law have done in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.”

Dr. Joseph D’souza, President of the All India Christian Council, said, “This law is unacceptable and betrays the promises of the Congress party to address the needs of minority faiths across India . This law severely undercuts the fundamental right to freedom of religion, particularly for exploited Dalits and tribals. The assent of the governor amounts to an endorsement of the discrimination and persecution against religious minorities in Himachal Pradesh state.”

Mr. Rakesh Bahadur, North India Convener of the National Conference of Dalit Organizations, said, “The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill 2006 is targeted to those Dalits who want to get out of caste oppression by choosing the faith they like. This bill violates the fundamental rights of every Indian citizen provided in article 25 of Indian Constitution as well as article 18 of the UN’s Universal Declaration.”

The bill punishes anyone found involved in conversion by any fraudulent means with imprisonment up to two years and/or a fine of twenty five thousand Rupees. If Dalits or minors are involved, five years imprisonment and/or a fifty thousand Rupee fine is the penalty. Any members of religion wishing to change his/her faith is required to give 30 days prior information to district authorities or otherwise face punishment of one month imprisonment and/or a one thousand Rupee fine. However, any member returning back to previous religion is not considered violating this law.

Himachal Pradesh is the eighth state in India to pass an anti-conversion law. However, Tamil Nadu repealed its law in June 2006 and several states have not framed rules that outline the penalties if the bill’s provisions are violated.