India: Congress govt. bans conversions in Himachal. By Seema Mustafa
08 Jan 2007
New Delhi, Jan. 8: The Congress government in Himachal Pradesh has quietly passed an anti-conversion law despite a written assurance by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to Christian organisations earlier that she had personally directed her party members to challenge similar laws passed by the BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill was passed during the four-day winter session of the state legislature on December 29, while most Christians were still celebrating Christmas and the New Year. The BJP in the state welcomed the bill, which is a first for the Congress Party. The bill was passed very quietly, with the Congress leadership in New Delhi also silent about the decision of chief minister Virbhadra Singh to pass this anti-conversion law. Similar laws are currently in force only in BJP-ruled state, such as Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Arunachal Pradesh.
Mrs Sonia Gandhi had intervened when Christian leaders had protested against the anti-conversion bill passed by the BJP governments. The secretary-general of the All India Christian Council, Mr John Dayal, told this newspaper that he had received a letter from the Congress president informing him that she had directed her party to oppose this law from inside and outside. However, instead of this being done at any level, a Congress government has also passed a similar law during the festive season. This, Mr Dayal said, was "a cruel joke."
The 8,000 Christians living in Himachal Pradesh appear to be alarmed by this development, as under the new law anyone found to be converting another person is to be severely punished with two years in prison and a fine of Rs 25,000. Christians have earlier been targeted by BJP-led governments and the party has also run a strong campaign against this minority community. The attacks on priests and nuns in states like Madhya Pradesh and Orissa have been followed by these anti-conversion laws which the BJP has made clear is basically targeting Christians in these states. A draft of the Himachal Pradesh bill had been in circulation in 2005 and been strongly opposed at the time by the Catholic Church. Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, has said: "Apart from the law, it is worrying that the social ministry of the Church is being scrutinised and regarded with such suspicion."
Himachal Pradesh officials acknowledge that they have had no reports of conversion to even merit such a law. It is not clear why it has been passed by the Congress government, with Mr Dayal saying: "It is no honour to the Congress Party, it must disown the bill and have it withdrawn." Christians have been pointing out that these anti-conversion laws are being used by communal parties to fuel the propaganda that they are engaged in mass conversion through force, with genuine social work coming under the administration's scanner. The Christian leaders pointed out that the Church had been working actively with the poor and the marginalised through welfare programmes, but its good work had never before been brought under a shadow of doubt.
Interestingly, former Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa had back in May 2004 repealed her state's Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act shortly after her party's poor performance in the Lok Sabha elections.