Tuesday, April 15, 2014

From the AFTERNOON DISPATCH& COURIER (Mumbai) April 15th 2014

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Debating the undebatable

Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Given that six people on a television studio panel, including the news anchor himself, all yelling and screaming at the same time, or talking completely at cross purposes, or refusing to be swayed by an opponent's argument, constitutes what the public perceives as a debate, it is most interesting to note that an actual “give and take” in happening between Goa and Gujarat currently.

And perhaps precisely because the long-distance debate is not taking place in a studio, and is occurring through the media at regular intervals, it promises to grow into something remarkable that can actually add to the sum total of information on a particular subject. 

The protagonists are the Chief Minister of Goa Manohar Parrikar (in the BJP corner), and Jesuit priest Cedric Prakash, director Prashant, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit centre for human rights, justice and peace.

Three weeks ago, Prakash was in Goa, addressing groups of people, mostly Catholics, on the elections, and the need to keep in mind the dire effect of corruption, casteism and the criminalisation of politics. There was immediate backlash, some of it from within the community itself. But it was in talking about the Freedom of Religion Bill, 2003, that he seems to have stepped on some very important toes. None other than the chief minister came back very sharply indeed, to talk about how Prakash was “misinforming the public.” He also reminded the priest of how “safe” he had been in Gujarat for the past 12 years after the riots of 2002, which event had made the latter one of Narendra Modi's bitterest and most consistent critics.

Now Father Cedric has picked up the ball lobbed by Parrikar into his court and run with it. This is what he has to say about the charge of “misinforming the public” about the Freedom of Religion Bill passed in Gujarat.

“It is against Article 25 of the Constitution and violates Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Mr. Parrikar is intelligent enough to know that I am not speaking about any anti-conversion laws. These in the past have been brought in both by Congress and BJP States. I amspeaking of the Freedom of Religion Law of 2003 of the Gujarat Government which necessitates that any person (adult) wanting to change his or her religion must first seek the permission of the District Collector. 

“This is clearly not about whether I have the right to convert you; but it is about, if I am a Hindu Dalit, whether I have the right to embrace Buddhism freely -- if I feel that Buddhism will help me become a better person. The irony of this law is that the Collector will first have to see if there is any force, or a fraud or an "allurement" (which is material gratification or otherwise). So if the Collector feels that"my becoming a better person" is allurement, he or she can deny you the permission! As recently as February 9, 2014, the Gir Somnath SDM filed a complaint against a woman for converting to Islam "illegally". 

And then he discusses Parrikar's remark about being “safe” in Gujarat as a matter of perception. “Thanks to the Central Government; there are mechanisms to ensure my safety and security. But this does not mean that I am not intimidated or harassed or even threatened!”

When we read the transcript of the chief minister's remarks, particularly the one about Prakash being safe in Gujarat, we were struck with dismay about how deliberately obtuse he seemed. As admirers of Parrikar's style of functioning in Goa, and the strength of his political will to get things done, we found it disconcerting that he evidently did not expect a reaction to this  remark. After all, the fact that organisations like Prashant continue to function in Gujarat in spite of the state's attempts to contain its activities, is well-known!  

So now we can wait and see what the Goa chief minister has to say in reply.

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