Mumbai (AsiaNews) After three years of debates, political quarrels and legal battles, Gujarat's State Assembly has adopted an amended version of its Freedom of Religion Act, better known as Anti-Conversion Bill. Harsh criticism has come from the Congress Party, which is the main state-wide opposition party, but especially from the Catholic Church of India, which has pledged that it will take all legal means available to challenge the law before the courts.
"We will join the bishops of Gujarat and go to the state governor to demand he not sign this draconian bill into law," Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, told AsiaNews.
Gujarat, which is governed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), adopted the Freedom of Religion Act in 2003, de facto making any conversions illegal. Even the new version does not clearly define what "forced conversion" means, but it does clearly define to whom it applies. Christians have often been accused of such practices.
For the amended law conversion means making someone give up their religion for another, it does not however mean changing denomination within the same religion.
Under the law, Jains, Hindus and Buddhists are one religion, Protestants and catholics are another, Shiites and Sunnis still another. India's 19 million Sikhs are not mentioned.
According to opposition leader Arjun Modhvadia, the law won't survive legal challenges. "Buddhism was given the status of a separate religion by the National Commission for Minorities Act in 1992," he said. "As for Jains, they were given the same status by a division bench of the Supreme Court in 2004."
More extremist elements in the government wanted to include Sikhism under Hinduism, but the proposal was rejected for fear of protests.
For the opposition Congress Party, the anti-conversion law is a political ploy by Gujarat's Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, who is planning a sectarian strategy ahead of next year's federal elections.
Jesuit human rights activist Fr Cedric Prakash agrees. He told AsiaNews that "the law violates Section 25 of the Constitution, and Section 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," adding that "we shall challenge it in the courts."
The anti-conversion law was adopted in 2003 but never implementedit is designed especially to stop conversions from Hinduism to Christianity, something the BJP fears.
Under the law, whenever a Hindu wants to become Christian, he or she must inform a district magistrate.
For Mgr Stanislaus Fernandes, who is also archbishop of Gandhinagar, "it is outrageous that the civilian authority should be given power to judge matters of faith".
"We intend to discuss with leaders of other religions the gross violations this law will cause insofar as it makes distinctions between faiths. Protestants and Catholics do not have any special rite to convert from one another. This is a sinister plan to cause dissensions within the Christian community".