By Fr. Cedric Prakash sj
The BJP Government in Gujarat rode to a massive two-thirds majority victory in the Assembly Elections of December 2002. This was mainly due to a meticulously organized pogrom on the Muslim minority of the State which is infamously called the “Gujarat Carnage of 2002”. There was another aspect in their Election Manifesto which they propagated far and wide prior to the elections, namely that an anti-Conversion Law would be in place after they came to power.
This promise they did keep when on March 26th 2003, (exactly three years to date) they rode rough-shod over a feeble opposition and unanimously passed. “The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003”.
Very ironically, that same day, Haren Pandya, a former Home Minister of Gujarat and a vociferous opponent of Narendra Modi was gunned down in the heart of the city in broad daylight. The truth of his assassination has still not yet emerged but if one listens to Mr. Vitthalbhai Pandya (his father), then one will easily be convinced that the murderers of his son are not the “Muslim terrorists” who are being accused.
Very strangely, inspite of passing the Act, till today, the Gujarat Government has not been able to frame the rules needed to govern the implementation of the Act.
In its essence, the Act meant “to provide for freedom of religion by prohibition of conversion from one religion to another by use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means and for the matters incidental thereto !”.
The key clauses of the Act are :
Ø anyone wanting to convert / wanting to convert another, from one religion to another needs to take the prior permission of the District Magistrate.
Ø whoever contravenes this Act will be punished for a period extending upto three years and also liable to a fine which may extend to Rs. 50,000/-.
Ø however, if the person happens to be a minor or woman or a person belonging to a Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribe, the imprisonment extends upto four years and the fine extends upto Rs. 1,00,000/-
Once this Act was passed, the Government of Gujarat was not able to answer simple questions. Are there any instances of forced conversion in Gujarat ? Has anyone complained ? What does “allurement” mean ? If for example, a person is promised “a more peaceful life” or a technique in the “art of living”, in the acceptance of another religion or way of life - does that amount to “allurement” ? And what happens if one would like to embrace Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism or even Buddhism ? Does one need “permission” for that conversion ?
Then come certain draconian aspects of the law: Who is the District Magistrate to sit on judgment on matters related to faith and conscience ? How does one decide if “permission “ has to be given or not ? What is the time limit by which the DM should give his or her “permission” ? What happens if one who is a “believer” would like to become a “non-believer” – an agnostic, an atheist ? Does that amount to changing one’s religion ?
Why should there be more punishment for a women, dalit, adivasi or minor if they contravene this law ? Is it because these groups are lesser than the “brahminized males” of society ?
On Christmas Day 2005, in a widely publicized debate on one of the TV channels, the Home Minister of Gujarat, Mr. Amit Shah was challenged as to why the rules which are necessary for implementing this law were not being framed. He had absolutely no answer and later on, when the media grilled both, his department and the legal department, each began putting the blame on the other.
Very obviously, the level of rhetoric was raised at the Shabri Kumbh Mela in the Dangs from February 11th to 13th 2006 which spewed venom and hate on the Christians.
One of the resolutions of this mela was to ensure that there was a national law to ban conversions. A couple of weeks later, in a much publicized meeting of the RSS in Orissa, a similar resolution was adopted. The questions which has to be asked is : why did the NDA, when in power, not enact such a national law ? Why do they want the UPA Government to do so now ?
Whilst it is true that the law, as it is, is toothless; it is also a fact that it is like a Damocles’ sword, with some petty officials misusing it to threaten and intimidate the tribals and the dalits.
Jayalalitha in Tamilnadu brought in a similar but less draconian legislation sometime ago, but she had to eat humble pie so very conveniently and strategically, she withdrew it. The Gujarat Government is in a similar quandary: having passed the legislation, they are just afraid to frame the rules for this law. The fact is that when they do so, they know that it will be challenged.
Another question that needs to be asked, “is the Government of Gujarat really afraid that hundreds and thousands of people from the State will actually embrace Christianity ?”. If this is so, why do they not have the courage to ask the one question which they should be asking themselves - “Why are people wanting to convert to another faith ?”. In the meantime, the Government and its cronies continue to harass the and intimidate Christians, Muslims and other minorities with a terrifying regularity. They are doing all in theirpower in order to “justify” a draconian law.
The Government has conveniently forgotten that Article 25 of the Constitutions guarantees every single citizen, the freedom to practice, preach and propagate the religion of his/her choice. Defending this Right is the Constitutional mandate of the Chief Minister and his ilk, not any other.
March 26th 2003 was indeed a bloody day in the histroy of Gujarat . Civil society must speak out for justice, freedom and truth in order to guarantee that such days will never be repeated !
And, we need to know…..Is the Gujarat Government afraid of something ?