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Last Updated: Friday, 19 May 2006, 10:34 GMT 11:34 UK
Rajasthan religion bill rejected
Head shaving as part of religious conversion in Tamil Nadu in 2003
There are fears the law will target religious minorities
The state governor of India's western state of Rajasthan has refused to sign a contentious religious freedom bill.

Pratibha Patil's refusal comes amid widespread criticism of the bill, which would ban people from being converted to religions against their will.

The state assembly passed the bill, which would see offenders fined or imprisoned, last month.

Members of Rajasthan's BJP-led government say the move by the governor is unconstitutional.

Critics of the bill say it could curb religious freedom.

Protect rights

Rajasthan's law minister Ghanshyam Tiwari said "it was the constitutional obligation of the governor to sign the bill that was passed by the legislative assembly".

It is believed Ms Patil did not sign the bill because of complaints by religious minorities, the BBC's Narayan Bareth says.

Human rights agencies and minority groups are opposed to the bill, saying it has been brought in to appease radical Hindu groups.

Critics called on Ms Patil to protect the rights of religious minorities such as Christians, Muslims and lower-caste Hindus.

We are happy that the governor took a bold step
Rajasthan Christian Fellowship's Father Coelho

However, the BJP-led government says the bill has been brought in to stop religious conversion by means of allurement, greed or pressure.

Under the proposed law, any person caught trying to convert people could face between two and five years in jail and a fine of 50,000 rupees (US$1,100).

'Insult to democracy'

'We are happy that the governor took a bold step. There is no need for such a law in Rajasthan as there are no conversion activities taking place here", Rajasthan Christian Fellowship's Father Coelho said.

Jamat-e Islami Rajasthan's chief Salim Engineer also said the law was designed to harass religious minorities.

Some Hindu groups, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) have criticised Ms Patil's decision, with its state chief Jugal Kishore saying sending back the bill unsigned was an insult to democracy.

The bill was introduced to into the state assembly after Hindu groups began opposing a Christian Mission - Emmanuel Mission - in Kota.

Christians make up 0.11% of Rajasthan's population.

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