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State Governor Objects to ‘Anti-Conversion’ Bill

Chhattisgarh chief questions religious double standard, excessive state control.

8/30/07 India (Compass Direct News) – The governor of Chhattisgarh has objected to excessive government control and a religious double standard in a state “anti-conversion” amendment bill proposed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Chhattisgarh state Gov. Ekkadu Srinivasan Lakshmi Narsimhan raised objections to two provisions in the bill – obtaining permission from the district collector (administrative head) before any conversion, and “allowing people to return to Hinduism and not treating this as conversion,” reported news agency Press Trust of India on August 22.

Gov. Narsimhan has reportedly referred the bill to the state law department for assessment.

Such “anti-conversion” laws are used to levy false accusations of “forcible conversion” at Christians. Similar bills introduced by the BJP are facing obstacles in three other states: Gujarat , Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

According to the proposed amendment, a person failing to obtain prior permission for conversion can be imprisoned for a term up to three years and/or fined up to 20,000 rupees (US$487). For those who have acquired permission, the law requires them to send notice to authorities within one month from the date of conversion; if not, they can face imprisonment up to one year and/or a fine up to 10,000 rupees (US$243).

The governor also wanted to know what prompted the government to propose an amendment to the existing act, added the agency.

State Home Minister Ramvichar Netam was not available for comment.

The BJP, which leads the federal opposition coalition, National Democratic Alliance, and governments in a few states, had passed the Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion Amendment Bill in the state assembly House on August 3, 2006.

The various Freedom of Religion Acts are referred to as “anti-conversion laws” by the Indian media as well as by the local populace. These laws are supposed to curb religious conversions made by “force,” “fraud” or “allurement.” But Christians and rights groups say that in reality the laws obstruct conversion generally, as Hindu extremists invoke them to harass Christian workers with spurious arrests and incarcerations.

Bogus ‘Religious Freedom’

Arun Pannalal, general secretary of the Chhattisgarh United Christian Forum, told Compass that his federation has expressed concern over the same two provisions in the amendment bill that the governor faulted.

“Requiring anyone who wants to convert to another religion to seek prior permission from authorities clearly violates the religious freedom promised in the Indian Constitution,” he said. “Similarly, excluding conversion to Hinduism from the ambit of the law is against the constitutional provision for equality before law.”

Pannalal questioned why the state should decide whether people can convert or not. “This is why even the former governor, K.M. Seth, who was a BJP appointee, did not sign the amendment bill but instead sat on it – though he did not reject it.”

According to procedures laid down in the India Constitution, a bill cannot become a law until the state governor signs it. There is no time frame, however, for a governor to sign a bill. After governor’s assent, a state government can frame rules and implement the law.

Hurdles in Other States

On July 31, Gujarat Gov. Nawal Kishore Sharma refused to give his assent to his state’s anti-conversion amendment bill, saying the measure “violated the right to religious freedom.”

Following the governor’s move, the Gujarat government on August 1 officially declared that it would reactivate the dormant 2003 anti-conversion law.

The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Bill was initially passed by the state assembly on March 26, 2003. The government, however, was not able to frame implementing rules, reportedly because of objections by the state legal department over some of its provisions. To clear the hurdles, the government last September 19 introduced the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill 2006.

The amendment bill stipulated that people from the Jain and Buddhist faiths would be construed as denominations of Hindu religion – a provision that was opposed by leaders from the Jain and Buddhist communities, as even the government census distinguishes between Hinduism and the two faiths. It also sought to exclude from the definition of “conversion” the renouncing of one denomination to adopt another.

On June 20, the then-governor of Rajasthan state, Pratibha Patil, referred the state anti-conversion bill to the president of India , saying it was unconstitutional, according to a report in national daily The Hindustan Times. On June 21, Patil resigned as governor to contest the presidential election and became India ’s first woman president.

The BJP in Rajasthan had passed the bill on April 7, 2006.

Also in June, Attorney General of India Milon Banerji criticized the Madhya Pradesh state anti-conversion amendment bill passed by the BJP on July 21, 2006.

Madhya Pradesh Gov. Balram Jakhar, who had sought Banerji’s opinion on the controversial amendment, had also asked the state government to submit a detailed report on the number of conversions over the past five years. The BJP, however, could furnish details of conversions only in 20 out of 48 districts – with no proof of forced conversions.

Several poorer districts did not report any conversions, despite state government claims that conversions in poor areas were rampant because Christians were offering inducements to the poor.

The proposed amendment in Madhya Pradesh requires clergy and “prospective converts” to notify authorities of the intent to change religion one month before a “conversion ceremony.” In its current form, the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act of 1968 requires that notice be sent to the district magistrate within seven days of conversion.

Anti-conversion legislation is in force in three states: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa, while they exist on paper in four other states: Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat , Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.