08/03/2007, 00.00
INDIA
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Gujarat: anti-conversion law due in days

by Nirmala Carvalho
The BJP-led government wants to “revive” a law approved in 2003 but never entered into force because of widespread protests that erupted back then. Whoever changes religion will have to inform the government first. Analysts see this as a political move to curry favour with Hindu nationalists for upcoming elections.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – The government of Gujarat, which is controlled by the Hindu, nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), decided on 1 August to revive an old anti-conversion law that was approved by parliament in 2003 but never promulgated. The move came in response to a recent request by the governor Nawal Kishore Sharma to modify the current law and to bring it in line with Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which recognizes the right of all to profess, practice and preach their faith.

The 2003 law was never promulgated, although it had been given the green light by the then governor, because it drew widespread protests in the state due to the fact that it violated personal freedoms. Amongst other things, the law accuses “foreign powers” of being behind religious conversions and stipulated that to convert from one religion to another, it was necessary to inform the government.

But now, Amit Shah, Minister of the Interior, has said all that is needed to bring the law into force is to complete the procedure, which he plans to do within eight to ten days.

The decision followed Sharma’s rejection of amendments proposed to the current law on religious freedom, which would include Buddhism and Jainism (an ancient Indian religion) under the umbrella of Hinduism. In this way, becoming Buddhist or Jainist would not be considered as a conversion and be totally free, while obstacles would remain for those wishing to convert from, for example, Hinduism to Islam or Christianity.

His political opponents have accused Chief Minister Narendra Modi of trying to win favour with voters in view of upcoming elections in the state in a few months. To do so, he is perceived to be strengthening ties with his Hindu base and with the BJP, for whom he has been chief minister since 2001.

Sajan George, President of the Bangalore-based Global Council of Indian Christians, an influential advocacy group, told AsiaNews: “The Gujarat Government must withdraw this draconian freedom of religion act. This Bill -in its original form as it was passed on March 26, 2003 – violates the constitutional rights of citizens and is very divisive in nature.  Article 25 of the Constitution and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guarantee to every single individual the right to preach, propagate and practice one’s religion and to choose the religion of one’s conscience.”

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