05/20/2006, 00.00
INDIA
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Rajasthan governor refuses to sign anti-conversion bill

by Nirmala Carvalho

The State's religious minorities have welcomed the decision with "joy and gratitude", but Nationalist Hindus say: "She was obliged to sign the decree; this is an insult to democracy".

Jaipur (AsiaNews) – Religious minorities in Rajasthan have greeted a decision by Pratibha Patil to reject the Law on Religious Freedom with "gratitude and joy". Yesterday, 19 May, the governor of the western State of Rajasthan refused to sign the decree approved in March by the state parliament, which had ridden roughshod over protests by Christians and Muslims. Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes, secretary-general of the Indian Bishops' Conference, "warmly welcomed" the decision. "The decree is against the human and civil rights of the entire population enshrined in the Indian Constitution."

The Bill was approved by MPs on 26 March last, despite strong opposition voiced by representatives of minorities and human rights activists. The Rajasthan Dharma Swatantrik Vidhayak [Law for Religious Freedom of Rajasthan] gave the authorities the green light "to use any means to prevent conversions" and stipulated a penalty of between two to five years imprisonment for those found guilty.

Similar laws have been enforced in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu: in the last, the law was nullified by a state ordinance, which however is deliberately ignored by local authorities.

The decision came under fire from representatives of the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP, the largest Indian political party with fundamentalist, nationalist leanings, in power in the state].Ghanshyam Tiwari, Rajasthan's law minister, said: "It is the constitutional obligation of the governor to sign a bill that was passed by the legislative assembly". The Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP, World Hindu Council] said Patil's decision was "an insult to democracy".

Minorities in the region think different. "We are happy that the governor took a bold step. There is no need for such a law in Rajasthan as there are no conversion activities taking place here," said a member of Christian Fellowship. Salim Engineer, chairman of the Jamat-e Islami of Rajasthan, said: "The law was designed to harass religious minorities."

In a letter to Mrs Patil, John Dayal, chairman of the All India Catholic Union expressed "gratitude for your using the powers granted you by the Constitution of India to protect the fundamental rights of citizens of India."

He continued: "I appeal to you so that such decisions may become as commonplace as possible across the country, where efforts are being made to push through such laws in other states too. We will always oppose them, in public and in the courts of law, to avoid this."

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

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