Rajasthan Passes New ‘anti-Conversion’ Bill
Unconstitutional measure called more arbitrary than previous legislation.
3/24/08 NEW DELHI (Compass Direct News) – The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Rajasthan state on Thursday (March 20) passed a new “anti-conversion” bill with more stringent and arbitrary provisions than previous legislation stalled by objections from the former governor.
The state government passed the Rajasthan Dharam Swatantrya (Religious Freedom) Bill of 2008 by voice vote, with Congress Party members staging a walkout in order to register protest over the constitutionally questionable move, reported private news channel NDTV.
The Rev. Dr. Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman for the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, told Compass that some aspects of the new bill were more stringent and arbitrary than the previous measure. Section 4(2) of the bill, he said, states that if a society or trust is found to be “contemplating” the use of money for converting people, its registration can be cancelled.
A representative of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) asked, “How can one decide if a registered body is ‘contemplating’ conversion? Since it is left to the discretion of the state government, Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] groups are likely to lodge numerous complaints against Christian organizations.”
In addition, Section 5(1) makes it mandatory for anyone intending to convert to send notice at least 30 days in advance or face a fine of up to 1,000 rupees (US$25). It adds that the same requirement and penalty will not be applied to a person wishing to revert to her or his “original religion.”
“The exemption of ‘reconversion’ from the bill’s ambit is based on an unfounded assumption that a person who renounces a religion always does so out of some pressure or financial benefit,” added the CLA representative. “This is why local authorities will do an inquiry only in a case of conversion out of one’s ‘original religion.’”
The new bill also provides for stricter punishment if the convert is underage, a woman, tribal (aboriginal) or Dalit (lowest caste formerly known as “untouchable”) – two to five years of imprisonment.
Christians also complain that the bill, like anti-conversion laws in other states, only vaguely defines “force,” “fraud” and “inducement,” which can paralyze Christian social and evangelistic service by exposing Christian workers to false charges.
The vagueness clears the way for spurious attempts to label Christ’s commands to feed the hungry and make disciples as “fraud” or “inducement.”
In spite of many arrests, there has been no proven case of conversion by unfair means.
Congress Party leader Harimohan Sharma told The Hindu newspaper that a 1962 Supreme Court ruling in Purushottam Namboodiri v. State of Kerala clarified that a bill cannot be introduced in the House if another one on the same subject is pending.
“By bringing in the same legislation again, the BJP is showing disrespect to the highest constitutional office of the country,” he charged.
The Rajasthan government had introduced and passed the previous bill on April 7, 2006. But then-Gov. Pratibha Patil, now India’s president, refused to sign the bill. Later, she referred the bill to the president, before becoming president herself. The previous bill had been awaiting her approval.
According to the Indian Constitution, a bill does not become law until the state governor signs it, after which the state can frame rules for implementation.
“When she [Patil] refused to give this assent as the governor, how can she accept it as the president?” C.P. Joshi, Congress Party president of Rajasthan, reportedly said. “She has given her clear legal view against this bill. The [BJP’s] attempt to bring back this bill is a grave attempt to undermine the constitutional office of the presidency.”
Madan Dilawar, Rajasthan state’s Social Welfare minister, claimed that in tribal areas and localities of poor Dalits, “all kinds of efforts” were being made to “tempt or force” people to change their religion.
“We will not tolerate these designs,” he told NDTV.
In a similar move, the BJP on March 11 revoked the Gujarat (state) Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill of 2006 in an apparent attempt to implement the older version of the legislation passed in 2003, which was yet to be brought in force. The state repealed it as the governor had refused to give his assent to it in July of last year. (See Compass Direct News, “State in India Revokes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Amendment Billþ,” March 11.)
Anti-conversion laws are in force in four states, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh. Such legislation also exists in the states of Gujarat and Arunachal Pradesh but has not been implemented.
Christians in Rajasthan fear more opposition in the already tense state.
NDTV quoted Father John Matthew, a pastor of Emmanuel Mission International (EMI) in the state capital of Jaipur, as saying, “Now we won’t be able say anything about God or praise our Lord in public, because in this bill even a supposed intent to convert can be a cause for arrest. So there’s no question of propagating our religion. This is against our fundamental rights under the constitution.”
Several violent attacks have been reported recently in Rajasthan. On April 29, 2007, the Christian community looked on with horror as intolerant Hindus brutally attacked a priest, Walter Masih, on film that aired on a national TV channel.
Earlier, in February 2006, the state government targeted EMI, based in Kota district, under the pretext of objections to a book, Haqeeqat (Reality), which allegedly denigrated Hindu gods.
Claiming that EMI was distributing the book, authorities arrested EMI leaders and cancelled the registration of their ministry societies. A Supreme Court ruling in August of that year, however, restored the registrations and unfroze the accounts until the case is resolved. The arrested leaders remain free on bail.
There are only 72,660 Christians out of the total population of more than 56 million in Rajasthan, according to the 2001 Census.
The state will hold legislature elections later this year.