India: 'Anti-Conversion' Law in Force in 4th State

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Rights groups to challenge constitutionality of Himachal Pradesh legislation.

NEW DELHI, October 8 (Compass Direct News) -- The Congress Party government in Himachal Pradesh state has brought into force its “anti-conversion” law six months after the governor gave assent to the controversial bill regulating religious conversions.

The move brings the number of states with anti-conversion laws in India to four: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Himachal Pradesh, although in Chhattisgarh the governor is seeking the opinion of the Attorney General of India (AGI) concerning the legislation.

The AGI recently objected to provisions of a similar amendment bill in Madhya Pradesh.

Anti-conversion legislation has also been approved in Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat but is yet to be implemented.

In Himachal Pradesh, State Home Secretary Prabodh Saxena told Compass that the rules under the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act 2006 were published on August 29 in the official government journal, bringing the law into force.

Lansinglu Rongmei of the Christian Legal Association said her organization, along with other rights groups, was prepared to challenge the constitutional validity of the anti-conversion law in Himachal Pradesh.

Section 4(1) of the Act requires any person wishing to convert to another religion to give a prior notice of at least 30 days to district authorities, while exempting those “converting back” to their “own religion,” which would be largely Hinduism.

“This is in violation of the right to equality before law promised in Article 14 of the Constitution,” Rongmei said.

Failing to give such notice can result in a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$23).

Section 3 of the Act prohibits conversion “by the use of force or by inducement or by any other fraudulent means” and states that a person who is converted by unfair means shall not be considered converted.

“Section 3 has been included to pave the way for extremists to indulge in ‘re-conversion’ programs with impunity,” Rongmei said.

According to Section 5, an offence under Section 3 is punishable with imprisonment up to two years and/or a fine up to 25,000 rupees (US$570). In case of conversion of a minor, woman, Dalit or tribal (aboriginal), the imprisonment can extend to three years and the fine up to 50,000 rupees (US$1,140).

“The terms ‘force,’ ‘inducement’ and ‘fraudulent means’ have not been defined properly, and the vagueness can allow anti-Christian forces to file false complaints against Christian workers with ease,” Rongmei warned.

She said that not a single person had been convicted of forcible or fraudulent conversion by any court in the country in the last 40 years, though numerous Christian workers have been prosecuted on those charges.

Last year, two members of the National Commission for Minorities, Harcharan Singh Josh and Lama Chosphel Zotpa, acknowledged that Hindu extremists frequently invoke the anti-conversion law in Madhya Pradesh as a means of inciting mobs against Christians or having them arrested without evidence. They noted this after their visit to the state between June 13 and 18.

Christians also say that when the mere passing of such a law adds to societal tensions, conditions only deteriorate when it is enforced.

On May 23, a group of about 20 people led by a local member of the Hindu extremist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh forcibly shaved the heads of two Christian workers to mark their “reconversion” to Hinduism after attacking them in Dhalpur area in Himachal Pradesh state’s Kullu district.

Bernard Christopher and Ravinder Kumar Gautam, both Christian workers of the Transfiguration Missionary Society, moved out of Kullu district fearing for their lives after the incident. They had been working in Kullu since January 25.

Following the attack, the assailants forced the Christians to drink Ganga jal (water from the River Ganges, which is considered holy) and asked a barber to shave their heads, a mark of “re-conversion.”

Himachal Pradesh Home Secretary Saxena, asked if any case had been registered under the new law, said he did not think so.

“No case under the law has come to my notice at least,” he said.

Gov. Vishnu Sadashiv Kokje, appointed by the former state government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, gave his assent to the anti-conversion bill on February 20 – a day before a delegation of Christians led by the All India Christian Council was planning to meet the governor in Shimla, the state capital, to urge him not to sign the bill.

The home ministry of the Congress Party government introduced the bill, led by Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, and the assembly House passed it on December 30, 2006.

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