06/13/2006, 00.00
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Rajasthan nationalists present anti-conversion bill again

by Nirmala Carvalho

The bill had been sent back to Parliament without the governor's signature; she asked that it be submitted to the President's attention, because "it seems to affect people's fundamental right of religious freedom". The bishop of Jaipur told AsiaNews: "We pray that God may enlighten those who must decide about such an act."

Jaipur (AsiaNews) – The government of Rajasthan has sent a controversial anti-conversion decree back to Pratibha Patil, the State governor, for a second time. Patil refused to sign the bill last month, returning it to parliament. Explaining her decision not to sign the bill into law, Patil had asked politicians to put the matter in the hands of the President of the Union because "the bill seems to affect people's fundamental right to freedom of religion".

"We pray to God that He may enlighten Governor Patil and the President of India to refrain from giving their assent to this Bill," Mgr Oswald Lewis, bishop of Jaipur, told AsiaNews. "The first round of this affair was a victory for us and now we must pray incessantly that it will be repeated. We have asked all the population of the state to join us in prayer so that those in responsibility will listen to the voice of their conscience."

Fr Babu Joseph, spokesman of the Indian Bishops' Conference told AsiaNews: "The government of Rajasthan has done as we expected it would and sent the bill back without changing it. We are confident the governor will tackle the situation by standing by her earlier views, rejecting the decree, which is nothing but a legislative tool to harass innocent people in the name of religion."

He added: "We urge one and all not to surrender to this draconian measure by the government and to press ahead in the struggle for freedom of choice, the fundamental right of all people. "

His appeal was echoed by John Dayal, chairman of the All India Catholic Union and a renowned activist for human rights. He said: "If the law is approved, we will appeal to the high court but if, as we think, it is presented to the president first, we are ready: we have an appeal drafted by an eminent jurist, Rajeev Dhawan, and his colleagues, saying the bill should not be passed into law. The main Christian groups of the country have mobilized and we are expecting many others to join us in our stand against the law."

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 fundamentalist, nationalist leanings). The Assembly debate was a furious one, given the strong opposition by all non-Nationalist parties and several human rights groups.

 The Rajasthan Dharma Swatantrik Vidhayak [Indian name of the bill] allows the authorities to use "any means to prevent conversions" and provides for penalties ranging from two to five years imprisonment for those found guilty. Similar laws are in force in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat and Tamil Nadu. In the last, the law was nullified by a state ordinance issued by the same government – also of Nationalist brand – that had passed it. The new government, composed of democrats, has promised to abolish the law "as soon as possible".

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

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