Gujarat: Anti-conversion Bill amendment passed
Posted September 20, 2006
September 20, 2006
The Indian Express
Gandhinagar, September 19: AMID noisy protests from the Opposition, the controversial amendment on conversions in the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003 was passed in the State Legislative Assembly here by a voice vote on Tuesday.
The Anti-Conversion Act passed earlier did not have clarity on what forced conversion means and to whom should it apply. Under the amendment Bill, a person need not seek permission in case he/she is converting from one sect to another of the same religion.
What attracted the Opposition ire was an elaboration describing Jainism and Buddhism as denominations of Hinduism, like Shia and Sunnis are of Islam or Catholicism and Protestantism are of Christianity. Former Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia even demanded that Sikhs be included as a Hindu sect.
Leader of Opposition Arjun Modhvadia said that as per SC orders given earlier - under the Indian Minority Community Act and National Commission for Minority Act - Jainism and Buddhism are independent religions. The Bill is against the Constitution, he added. To this, Law Minister Ashok Bhatt said the Bill's provisions were well within the definition of religion as per Article 25 of the Constitution. From here on, the debate became political.
Modhvadia alleged that whenever elections were due, the Government came up with such bills. Before the Lok Sabha elections (2004), the Government brought the Anti-Conversion Bill. ''Now the government is targetting 2007 Assembly elections," he added.
To this, Minister of State for Home Amit Shah said the Congress was creating division within the Hindu society by trying to separate these religions from the Hindu-fold. Going on the defensive, Modhvadia said that he, too, was part of many religious organisations but never flaunted them to gain political mileage.
He berated the Government for providing little debate on an important political issue. "Last time, you passed the Bill after the Opposition was suspended (for raising the issue of the assassination of BJP leader Haren Pandya). This time, after sitting over an amendment for more than three years, you cannot allow a five-day debate. The intention is politics of religion," Modhvadia said.
Modhvadia's claim that "root-cause" of Dalit neglect is prime reason for conversions attracted strong protests from the BJP. Ministers I K Jadeja, Ashok Bhatt and Ramanlal Vora jumped to their feet, saying if the Dalits were not empowered, it was because of 50 long years of Congress rule. ''We would change their condition, but for the time being, this law is needed to stop conversions of poor and illiterate people based on allurement, cheating or fear," said Shah.
Closing his arguments, Modhvadia said that one's faith was a private affair, and Government had no business legislating it. Picking up from here, BJP's Zadaphia said the Bill was needed to make clear the thin line between definitions of religion and sects. BJP MLA from Bhavnagar Sunil Oza drew the attention of the House towards alleged conversions carried out by Christian missionaries in Bhavnagar district.
Provisions of the Freedom of Religion Act, 2003
* Makes forcible religious conversion a cognizable offence punishable by law. Punishment for those found guilty can be upto 3 years or Rs 50,000. In case a minor, SC or ST is converted, the period is upto 4 years and fine is Rs 1 lakh.
* Defines allurement, conversion, force, fraudulent means and minor for the purposes of the Act
* Prior permission of District Magistrate is mandatory in case a conversion is planned. The convert also has to submit a prescribed form to the District Magistrate after the conversion ceremony is over