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Chhattisgarh Governor Bounces Conversion Bill, Christians Applaud

ICC Note: More good news from India as state governor withholds approval from anti-conversion bill to restrict freedom of conscience.

9/14/07 India (UCAN) — Christians in Chhattisgarh have welcomed the state governor’s refusal to sign a bill that would make a law regulating religious conversions more stringent.

The legislative assembly of the central Indian state passed the Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2006, a year ago. But according to media reports on Sept. 11, Governor E.S.L. Narasimhan has “withheld assent” on the bill. The signature of the governor, who represents the Indian president in a state, is mandatory for a law to take effect.

The governor “has acted rightly,” commented Bishop Paul Toppo of Raigarh, who heads one of the four Catholic dioceses in the state.

The law regulating religious conversions that the state’s ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party) wanted to amend with the bill passed on Aug. 3, 2006, was enacted by Madhya Pradesh state in 1968. Chhattisgarh, which was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, retained the law. Upon taking power in 2003, the BJP sought to make the law more stringent.

The amendment stipulates that those wishing to change religion must seek the permission of their district magistrate 30 days in advance. It also says the return of people to their original religion will not be categorized as “forceful conversions” and those involved will not be punished.

Christian groups allege the second provision is aimed at converting Christians to Hinduism through the ghar vapasi (home return) “re-conversion” program that Hindu radicals carry out among tribal and low-caste people in the state.

Church leaders say the law violates the Indian Constitution, which grants citizens the right to profess, preach and propagate a religion of choice. Some Christian leaders also met the governor to ask him not to sign the amendment.

The Christians’ efforts have succeeded, Pastor Arun Pannalal, general secretary of Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, told UCA News Sept. 11.

Media reports said the governor objected to the 30-day-notice provision, since the magistrate also has the authority to deny such permission. The governor reportedly also had reservations over the clause exonerating those returning to their original religion.

According to Father Sebastian Poomattam, a social activist and practicing lawyer, “there was no need for more legislation, since a law exists already.”

The existing law on conversion makes it a crime to convert through inducement, fraud or force. Church people have opposed it, saying the terms are too wide and could be interpreted to include any missionary activity.

The amendment “is only (meant) to harass the Christians,” Father Poomattam told UCA News on Sept. 11. He works in Bilaspur district, covered by Raipur archdiocese. The archdiocese is based in the state capital of Raipur , 1,745 kilometers southeast of New Delhi .

The BJP-ruled states of Gujarat and Rajasthan have passed similar legislation in recent years, the governors of those states also refrained from signing those bills, which have not become law.

After the Indian Constitution was promulgated in 1950, Orissa became the first state to pass a law regulating conversions, in 1967. The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967 and was followed by the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam (freedom of religion act) in 1968. The northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh passed a similar law in 1978.

Tamil Nadu state in southern India passed a law restricting conversions in 2002 but repealed it in 2004 following protests. Most recently, the government of Himachal Pradesh, a northern Indian state ruled by the Congress Party, passed a law restricting conversions in December 2006.