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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 26 March, 2003, 10:24 GMT
Gujarat to restrict religious conversions

Jill McGivering
BBC correspondent in Delhi

Politicians in India's western state of Gujarat have approved a controversial bill ostensibly designed to stop forced religious conversions.

[Christians] slowly start teaching the Bible and start converting them - we object to this
Satish Pradhan
Shiv Sena party
But many opponents say it could be used to target Christian and Muslim minority communities.

The Freedom of Religion Bill has been modelled on similar legislation introduced in December in the state of Tamil Nadu and already on the statute books in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.

The text of the proposed bill is not yet widely available but there are indications that it may be more stringent than existing legislation in other states.

Prison and fine

Penalties for people convicted of carrying out conversions using allurement or force include up to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 rupees ($1,000).

Under the terms of the bill, a conversion must be assessed by officials and prior permission given by the District Magistrate to be lawful.

Head shaving as part of religious conversion in Tamil Nadu last year
Conversions in Tamil Nadu went ahead despite a ban

Conversions which are found to be genuine and voluntary but where prior permission was not secured from the District Magistrate could also be punished with up to one year in prison and a fine of 1,000 rupees ($20).

Supporters of the bill say it will protect Hindu communities at the bottom of the caste system whom they see as vulnerable to exploitation and pressure tactics.

Satish Pradhan is an MP with the right-wing pro-Hindu Shiv Sena party which wants anti-conversion legislation to be adopted across the whole of India.

"For people who are poor, it's a question of their bread and butter," he told the BBC.

"But while giving bread and butter and medicines, [Christians] slowly start teaching the Bible and start converting them. We object to this."

Like many who support the bill, and unlike many Indian Christians, he sees Christianity as a foreign religion which is trying to undermine India's Hindu culture.

"Why should we keep mum?" he said. "We're proud to be Hindus."

Campaign promise

Christian missionaries are the main target of right-wing Hindu criticism - although conversions to other religions, including Islam, would also be subject to the new Bill.

The bill formed part of the campaign manifesto of the state's chief minister Narendra Modi when he was successfully re-elected to office last December.

The nightmare Gujarat has experienced means every such move smells of some other intention
Prakash Shah
Movement for Secular Democracy in Gujarat

Critics of the proposed bill accuse the government of failing to justify it.

Many describe Christian and Muslim communities as still in a state of shock after riots last year in which officially 1,000 people (and unofficially more than 2,000 people), the majority of them Muslim, were killed by mostly Hindu mobs.

Subsequent reports into the violence, including an internal report by the British Government, concluded that the violence was pre-planned by right wing Hindu groups and that the chief minister was involved.

"The nightmare Gujarat has experienced means every such move smells of some other intention," said Prakash Shah, convenor of the Movement for Secular Democracy in Gujarat.

"This government is still bent on continuing the blood-soaked action of last year."

He sees the bill as the latest step in a deliberate strategy by the Government to polarise the state along religious lines.

"Those who upset the process of law and order last year are still roaming scot-free," Mr Shah said.

"Whatever apparent normalcy we have, unless justice is re-established, the problems will continue."

'Side-tracked'

Others accuse the state government of using communal issues to deflect attention from economic and social problems.

A man walks past the debris of the riot
Religious riots last year devastated parts of Gujarat

"They're side-tracking," said Professor DN Pathak, president of the non-government group, the People's Union for Civil Liberties of Gujarat.

"The real issue is development, removing poverty and creating a better quality of education, health and human rights. But instead of touching these issues, the government seems to be rousing people's religious sentiment."

He pointed out that Christians constitute less than 0.5% of Gujarat's population whereas about 85% of the state are Hindus.

"To feel Christians are going to increase their population and that they will be a threat to many Hindus is absolute nonsense," he said.

Some lower caste Hindus converted to Christianity or Islam, he said, as a way of having the upward mobility and social equality that Hinduism didn't offer. "That freedom," he said, "should not be touched."

Census

Concerns about the way the bill could be used to harass minorities have increased since reports of a recent census of Christians in Gujarat.

John Dayal, the secretary general of the All India Christian Council, has just returned to Delhi after visiting Rajkot in central Gujarat.

He told the BBC that he had interviewed Christian villagers in the area who had recently been questioned about their religion by police officers.

Nuns and priests, he said, had been asked about the source of their funding, why they were in the state, whether or not they had converted people and if so, how many.

Villagers who were Christians told him they'd been asked, he said, how long they had been Christians, why they had converted and what was wrong with their previous religion.

The survey - and the prospect of the bill - were alarming many in the Christian community, he said.

"This introduces a sense of licensing in the state and of pre-emptive permission," he said. "Unless the state desires, you can't change religion."


SEE ALSO:
Living in fear in Gujarat
04 Mar 03 |  South Asia
Godhra's bitter harvest
26 Feb 03 |  South Asia
India's row over conversions
06 Dec 02 |  South Asia
Crackdown over India mass baptism
06 Dec 02 |  South Asia
UK report censures Gujarat rulers
25 Apr 02 |  South Asia


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