04/19/2006, 00.00
INDIA
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Christian groups against approval of Rajasthan anti-conversion bill

by Nirmala Carvalho

John Dayal, a well-known human rights activist, has written an open letter to the State governor, urging her to "use her legislative powers to reject the decree and to prevent it from becoming law".

Jaipur (AsiaNews) – Christian organisations in India have called on the governor of Rajasthan not to sign the so-called "Freedom of Religion Bill 2006" banning conversions and restricting religious freedom among minorities.

In an appeal written in the name of the Episcopal Justice and Peace Commission, the Christian Council and the Catholic Union, John Dayal, a well known human rights campaigner, called on the governor to "use her statutory powers to reject and return the Bill and not to make it law".

To carry more weight, the appeal – sent also to the prime minister and president of the Indian Union – includes detailed legal views. The most authoritative is that of Rajeev Dhawan, a lawyer of the Supreme Court and a known expert in constitutional law. The lawyer said the decree ran counter to many points in the Constitution of the Union, and if approved, "could well damage the image of Rajasthan and all India".

The wording of the bill was approved by the State Assembly at the beginning of April after it was submitted by Vasundhra Raje Scindia, the state's prime minister who is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, India's largest political party with nationalistic leanings). The Assembly debate was animated, with strong opposition from all non-nationalistic parties.

On 1 April, a large rally was held in the capital Jaipur – the "pink city" – to express civil society's concern, as the organizers explained, "about the nefarious Bill its dangerous motives, which aim to do nothing less than to divide the people on religious lines and injure the secular polity of our society".

Dr Dayal told the Governor: "India risks tarnishing her good reputation with such bills that go counter to every single international covenant we have signed.

The responsibility lies with you to check this backward slide because your role as governor gives you full powers to prevent approval of this law."

Fr Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest, told AsiaNews: "The Rajasthan State Freedom of Religion Bill 2006 is another draconian law that attempts to subvert the fundamental right of an Indian citizen to freely practice, worship and freely propagate his faith. This is an effort by Nationalists to strike at the roots of the secular character of the Constitution.  The Governor of Rajasthan is duty bound not to give her assent to the Bill."

The Rajasthan Dharma Swatantrik Vidhayak [the title of the law in Indian] allows authorities to use "any means necessary to prevent conversions" and carries a sentence of between two to five years in prison for those found guilty. Similar laws are already in force in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu: in the last, the law was declared null by a state ordinance which is however deliberately ignored by the local authorities.

Christians make up 0.11% of the population in Rajasthan, Muslims account for 8% and Hindus for 89%.

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