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India: State Admits Few Complaints of 'Forced' Conversions

Friday, July 18, 2008 | Tag Cloud

With three complaints in 10 years, Gujarat’s 'anti-conversion' law proving unnecessary

NEW DELHI (Compass Direct News) -- The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government in Gujarat state has disclosed that there were only three complaints of alleged “forcible” conversions in the state in the last 10 years, and only two of those concerned Christian conversions.

The state Home Department made the embarrassing disclosure after Samson Christian, a leader of the All India Christian Council (AICC), sought the information under the Right to Information Act of 2005. The Act makes it mandatory for government authorities to furnish information concerning public matters sought by any citizen.

“The Home Department said two of the three complaints were concerning Christian conversions,” Christian told Compass. “One was filed in 2007, and the other in 1997.”

The BJP government’s reluctant admission coincided with the notification of the rules under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act of 2003 on July 10. The rules were framed on April 1, and their notification was the last formality in the implementation of the law.

India’s Freedom of Religion Acts, referred to as “anti-conversion laws,” are supposed to curb religious conversions made by “force,” “fraud” or “allurement.” But Christians and rights groups say that in reality the laws obstruct conversion generally, as Hindu nationalists invoke them to harass Christian workers with spurious arrests and incarcerations.

“Now, since the law has been fully implemented, the number of complaints of ‘forced’ conversions may rise, because the BJP government would like to justify the law,” Christian said.

Political Reasons

The AICC leader underlined that when the anti-conversion law was introduced and passed in the state assembly House in 2003, there was only one case of alleged “forced” conversion, and that without conviction.

“There was no need to enact a special law to ‘curb’ unlawful conversions because there is no such thing as ‘forced’ conversion,” he said. “Besides, there are enough provisions in the existing laws, mainly the Indian Penal Code, to deal with any illegal conversion.”

Although some anti-conversion laws have been in force for nearly 40 years, such as in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, not a single person has been found guilty of “forced” conversion.

Christians have long been saying that the various anti-conversion laws in the country have been erected merely for political reasons.

The former All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party government in the southern state of Tamil Nadu had introduced an anti-conversion ordinance in October 2002 to woo the BJP, a leading party of the then ruling federal government of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which was expected to resume power in the following elections in 2004. After the NDA lost and the AIADMK party fared poorly in the 2004 general elections, however, the state government repealed the law, admitting that it was an “anti-people legislation.”

Similarly, the Congress Party government in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh passed an anti-conversion bill in 2006 without giving details of cases concerning “forced” conversions, and for apparent political reasons.

The opposition BJP in Himachal Pradesh had been preparing to use the “conversion” issue as a poll plank in the assembly elections due the following year. Hindu nationalist groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and its youth wing Bajrang Dal made numerous allegations of “forced” conversions against Christians to build a case for an anti-conversion law.

In September 2006, BJP leader Prem Kumar Dhumal promised to ban conversions if his party won the elections. The Congress Party, however, undercut the BJP by introducing the bill.

Most Draconian

Christian said the law in Gujarat was the “most draconian” among all similar laws in force in other states.

The rules under the Gujarat law make it obligatory for clergy seeking to convert someone from one religion to another to obtain “prior permission” of the district magistrate (administrative head) in order to avoid police action.

“The law seeks to elevate the district magistrate’s office to God’s level, as it is the official who will decide whether a person can convert or not,” said Christian.

The rules also require the clergy to sign a detailed form providing information on the person whom she/he wishes to convert, her/his marital status, occupation and monthly income, and whether the one to be converted is a minor or a member of Scheduled Caste (Dalit) or Tribe (aboriginal).

Anyone willing to convert is also required to apply to the district magistrate a month before the rituals involved in conversion and give details on the place of conversion, time and reason. After conversion, the person must obligatorily provide information within 10 days on the rites to the district magistrate, reason for conversion, the name of the priest who carried out the ritual and full details of the persons who took part in the ceremony.

The district magistrate must send a quarterly report to the government listing the number of applications for prior permission, comparative statistics of the earlier quarter, reasons for granting or not granting permission, number of conversions and number of actions against offenders.

Desperation

The Gujarat government has seemingly been desperate to enact the anti-conversion law, which has been implemented after crossing many hurdles.

The law was passed in the state assembly House without any discussion in 2003, but the government could not frame rules due to legal hurdles pointed out by the state Department of Law.

The BJP then came up with the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill of 2006, to introduce new clauses stipulating that people from the Jain and Buddhist faiths would be construed as denominations of Hindu religion – a provision that was opposed by leaders from the Jain and Buddhist communities, as even the government census distinguishes between Hinduism and the other two faiths.

It also sought to exclude from the definition of “conversion” the renouncing of one denomination for another. Gujarat Gov. Nawal Kishore Sharma refused to give his assent.

The Gujarat government then repealed the amendment bill in March 2008 to revert to the original Act of 2003, and finally implemented it.

The BJP in Gujarat is infamous for persecuting religious minorities of Muslims and Christians. In 2002, Hindu nationalist groups killed more than 2,000 Muslims, as the BJP government reportedly looked on. In 1998, Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) extremists launched a series of attacks for more than 10 days in Gujarat’s Dangs district.

According to the 2001 census, there are only 284,092 Christians in Gujarat, which has a total population of more than 50 million.

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