Three years after the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat, a Jesuit priest, Fr Cedric Prakash, analyses the situation in this Indian state and the political trap the fundamentalists "set for themselves" by approving anti-conversion legislation.
Ahmedabad (AsiaNews) The government of Gujarat "has conveniently forgotten that Article 25 of the Constitutions guarantees freedom of worship, and it does everything in its power to continue, and to justify, ruthless persecution against Christians and Muslims living in the state". With these words, Fr Cedric Prakash director of Prashant, a Jesuit-run centre for human rights, justice and peace concluded an article he wrote about the "Carnage of Gujarat": the massacre perpetrated three years ago by "unknown people" against the Muslim community.
Fr Prakash examines the anti-conversion law currently in force that was approved by the nationalist Hindu party, and poses a series of questions to which "the government simply gives no reply". The Jesuit is well known for his work for human rights: the Indian president awarded him with the Kabir Puraskar prize "for his commitment to promote communal peace and harmony".
We reproduce the article in full below:
The BJP government [Bharatiya Janata Party, India's largest political party with nationalist, fundamentalist leanings] 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 26 2003, three years ago, they rode rough-shod over a feeble opposition and unanimously passed "The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act".
Very ironically, that same day, Haren Pandya, a former Home Minister of Gujarat and a vociferous opponent of Narendra Modi, a nationalist leader, 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 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, although the Act was passed, until 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 "provides for freedom of religion by prohibition of conversion from one religion to another by use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means".
The key clauses of the Act are :
1. Anyone wanting to convert or wanting to convert someone else from one religion to another needs prior permission from the District Magistrate.
2. Whoever contravenes this Act will be punished for a period extending up to three years and also liable to a fine which may extend to 50,000 rupees
3. However, if the "guilty" happens to be a minor or woman or a tribal or an outcast, the imprisonment extends up to four years and the fine extends up to 100,000 rupees.
Once this Act was passed, the government 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 to have permission for that conversion?
Then there are 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 should be given or not? What happens if one decides to become an agnostic, an atheist? Does that amount to changing one's religion? Why should there be more severe punishment for a women, dalit, adivasi or minor? Is it because these groups are lesser than the "brahminized males" who dominate our society?
On Christmas Day 2005, in a widely publicized debate on television, the Home Minister of Gujarat, 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.
Very obviously, the level of rhetoric and the ferocity of the demands were heightened at the Shabri Kumbh Mela [festival of Hindu purification] from 11 to 13 February 2006. At this time, anti-Christian venom and hate were spewed. One of the resolutions of this Mela was to ensure a national law to ban conversions. A couple of weeks later, in a much publicized meeting of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS, paramilitary formation of extremist Hindus, considered to be the armed wing of the BJP] in Orissa, a similar resolution was adopted.
The question is: why wasn't such a law approved when the nationalists were in power? Why do they call on the current national government to pass it?
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 officials misusing it to threaten and intimidate tribals and dalits.
Mrs Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu brought in a similar but less draconian legislation sometime ago, but she had to eat humble pie because of its impact, 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. It is a political trap they have set for themselves.
Another question that needs to be asked is: "Is the government of Gujarat really afraid that hundreds and thousands of people will actually embrace Christianity?" If this is so, why don't they ask themselves why people want to convert to another faith?"
In the meantime, the government continues to harass and intimidate Christians, Muslims and other minorities with a terrifying regularity. They are doing all in their power in order to justify this law and persecution. 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.
26 March 2003 was indeed a bloody day in the history 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?