India is a secular country, states the Constitution. The freedom to practise religion is a fundamental right of all citizens.?But?a new law passed by the BJP government in Rajasthan threatens to clip this freedom ironically under the guise of protecting it. It is emulating similar BJP-led legislative moves—ongoing?or?completed— in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.In the face of strong opposition, the state assembly has passed a tougher version of its 2006 original Bill aimed at preventing use of force, fraud or allurement to convert a person’s religion. With assembly elections due this year, the Congress has argued that the motive is political—ignoring the similar laws it passed elsewhere. But the real question is: Why should the state decide, as it fancies, what constitutes “forced” shift of faith and what doesn’t?
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Rajasthan’s 2006 Bill was not signed by the then governor Pratibha Patil on the grounds that it violated several freedoms. Patil had forwarded the contentious Bill to then President Abdul Kalam—it is still pending in Rashtrapati Bhavan and, hence, the state Congress is also questioning the legal status of the latest move. In defence, the assembly’s speaker says that as some provisions have been changed, the new Bill is legal.
Significantly, these changes are aimed at penalizing far more those found to be “illegally” converting a person and allow punishment on far more arbitrary terms—for instance, for “contemplating” the use of money for conversions. Also, punishment is much stricter if the convert is underage, a tribal, a Dalit—or a woman!
Further, the mandated 30-day notice before one converts, or a hefty fine, doesn’t apply for reconversion to the original religion, even though the circumstances of reconversions, such as in Chhattisgarh, can well be questioned.
These are misguided attempts to garner goodwill in the majority vote bank. The BJP, with its ideological compulsions, would spearhead the “movement” to “save” the vulnerable—from what might well be an effort to escape the exploitative rigidities of orthodox Hinduism. But the Congress also exposed the hypocrisy of its secularist claims—earlier in Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh—and in Himachal Pradesh in 2007, where a BJP senior was quoted as saying that had the Congress not passed a similar Bill, his party would have used it as a major plank in the 2008 state elections.
There is no reason for the state to be involved in an individual’s shifts of faith,?barring for updating its census data. This law adds to the political threat to Indian secularism—from wilful spurring of rivalry and mistrust among religious groups. It encourages fundamentalism.
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