Christian leaders urge governor to dismiss new legislation as unconstitutional.
by Vishal Arora
NEW DELHI, April 13 (Compass Direct) — An anti-conversion bill passed by the Rajasthan state assembly last Friday (April 7) is unconstitutional and could lead to an "explosive situation" in the state, Christians say.
Religious tensions in the state are already high following the arrest of the Rev. Dr. Samuel Thomas, president of Emmanuel Mission International (EMI), on March 16. Thomas is charged with hurting the religious sentiments of the Hindu community.
The Supreme Court today stayed the arrest of EMI founder M.A. Thomas, who had been declared an "absconding criminal," until April 21.
The registration of EMI schools and hospitals remained cancelled and EMI bank accounts were still frozen at press time.
"In the context of the ongoing harassment of Christians in Kota district, Rajasthan, the anti-conversion law will lead to an explosive situation," Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, told Compass.
The bill too loosely defines critical terms such as "allurement," "force," and "fraudulent conversion," Dayal explained. It also gives extra discretionary powers to the state administration. This power could be used by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other affiliated organizations as a tool to harass Christians.
Dayal said laws regulating conversion were in any case redundant, since theologically conversion was the work of the Holy Spirit and it was impossible for anyone to convert another person. He added that not a single person has so far been found guilty under any state anti-conversion law in India, despite these laws being in force in some states for at least 34 years.
Dayal planned to petition the governor of Rajasthan, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, tomorrow (April 14), asking her not to give assent to the Rajasthan Dharma Swatantrya Vidheyak (Religious Freedom Bill).
Any bill passed by a state assembly must be sent to the state governor for final approval. Once approval is given, the state government must publish rules enforcing the bill in the government gazette in order to bring it into effect.
Given that the bill states it shall come into force "at once," the state government is expected to enforce it within a few weeks.
"Christians must petition the Rajasthan High Court as soon as the anti-conversion law is enforced, challenging its constitutionality and other flaws," Lansinglu Rongmei, a Supreme Court lawyer and secretary of the Christian Legal Association of India, told Compass.
The bill proposes imprisonment for two-to-five years and/or a maximum fine of 50,000 rupees (US$1,107) for both the converter and the converted, if the conversion is found to be "unlawful." An offence under the bill would be non-bailable.
The bill, however, rejects the term "reconversion." It defines "conversion" as renouncing one's own religion and adopting another — but explains that "own religion" means "the religion of one's forefathers."
This interpretation violates Article 14 of the India Constitution, which promises equality before law for all, according to Rongmei.
Rajeev Dhawan, senior advocate of the Supreme Court and head of the Public Interest Litigation Support and Research Center, said the reasons given for enacting the law — annoyance caused to a religious community and law and order problems — were unjustifiable.
Restrictions cannot be imposed on constitutional freedoms on the grounds of law and order, he said.
Dhawan also said the state was amply empowered by Chapter 15 of the Indian Penal Code to deal with any tensions resulting from religious conversions.
Copyright 2006 Compass Direct
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