State Governor in India Rejects Anti-Conversion Bill

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

BJP assembly in Rajasthan calls refusal unconstitutional, will continue push for passage.

by Vishal Arora

NEW DELHI, May 22 (Compass Direct) -- Amid widespread criticism of the Rajasthan anti-conversion bill by Christian and human rights organizations, Rajasthan Gov. Pratibha Patil on Friday (May 19) refused to sign it into law, saying its provisions would violate religious freedom.

The Rajasthan Freedom of Religion Bill 2006 was passed on April 7 by the state assembly. Gov. Patil said its provisions would affect the right to freedom of religion, reported leading national daily The Hindustan Times.

In sending the bill back to the Rajasthan assembly, she suggested representatives refer it to the president for passage if they wished. Article 200 of the India Constitution provides for the president to sign bills into law if state governor refuses to do so.

But the daily quoted Rajasthan’s law minister, Ghanshyam Tiwari, as saying, “It was the constitutional obligation of the governor to sign the bill that was passed by the legislative assembly.”

Tiwari added that the bill would be sent back to the governor if it receives cabinet approval. While the Rajasthan assembly is controlled by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) majority, the government of India is ruled by the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance.

In India a governor, who is the nominal head of a state government to ensure that the constitutional provisions are upheld, almost never refuses to sign a bill passed by the assembly. State governors are appointed by the federal government.

Instrument of Harassment

The Rajasthan government had introduced the bill alleging that “some religious and other institutions, bodies and individuals are involved in unlawful conversion from one religion to another by allurement or by fraudulent means or forcibly.”

Christian organizations like the AICC and the Christian Legal Association of India, and human rights organizations like the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, had said that under the proposed anti-conversion law it would become extremely easy for Hindu fundamentalists to lodge false accusations against Christian workers. The bill provides for the immediate arrest of the accused even before the investigation is done.

They also said that the bill treated conversion from Hinduism to Christianity differently than conversion from Christianity to Hinduism, thereby violating Article 14 of the constitution, which promises equality before the law.

The bill explicitly exempts “reconversion” of Christian converts to Hinduism from its purview by defining conversion as adopting a religion other than that of one’s forefathers.

These organizations also pointed out that the legislation could potentially allow Hindu fundamentalists to term any social work among people of other faiths as “allurement” –loosely defined as “offer of any temptation in the form of any gift or gratification, either in cash or kind or grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise.”

In its definition of “force,” the bill included “threat of divine displeasure.” This can be used to ban any Christian literature that talks about heaven and hell and the consequences of sin and rejecting Christ’s claims.

The bill seeks the same punishment for those convicted of converting by the use of fraud, allurement or force as for those “attempting to convert,” whereas in all other Indian law the punishment for attempted crimes is less than that of carrying them out.

Enos Das Pradhan, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in India, told reporters that the bill “is an instrument to harass the Christians. BJP chief Rajnath Singh has openly said that it will be implemented in the [BJP] party-led states. We will resist this move.”

Five other states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat – have similar anti-conversion laws. However, Gujarat has not yet formulated rules under the law to enact it.

Rajasthan lawmakers claimed the intent of the bill was to maintain religious harmony and civil order in the state.

Papal Opposition

Christians in India, who had been lobbying against the anti-conversion bill, expressed their gratitude to Gov. Patil.

“We are thankful to Gov. Pratibha Patil for paying heed to the nationwide outcry, not only in the Christian community but also in the entire secular polity, against the bill whose intention and nefarious motives were nothing less than to divide the people on religious lines and injure the secular polity of the state and the nation,” Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass.

“This is a triumph of the democratic and secular values enshrined in our Constitution – for which our nation is known in the world,” he said.

On Friday (May 19), Dayal wrote to Gov. Patil thanking her on behalf of the AICC and the All India Catholic Union (AICU). Dayal is also the national president of the AICU.

“I appeal to you to please also advise the state government not to try again to pass the bill through the assembly, in which the BJP has a brute majority,” Dayal, also a member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, wrote.

He said Christians would oppose any such move in the public and in courts of law.

“Such medieval and backward-looking bills go counter to every single international covenant which India has signed, and bring a bad name to the country,” he added. “The Rajasthan bill will also have an impact on the fair reputation and goodwill of the state.”

The legislation has also attracted the interest of Pope Benedict XVI. On Thursday (May 18), the Pope reportedly told India’s new ambassador to the Vatican, Amitava Tripathi, that the country should “firmly reject” attempts “to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right to religious freedom.”

The Pope had also taken note of the “disturbing signs of religious intolerance which had troubled some regions of the nation.”

The government of India on Friday (May 19) responded to the Pope’s call with a statement reiterating its commitment to religious freedom – the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion – as stipulated in the constitution.

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct