New Delhi, March 11: When the Himachal Pradesh Assembly passed the anti-conversion Freedom of Religion Act 2006 last December, the Congress party could not have imagined the adverse reactions it would bring from minority groups, especially Christians, even from outside the state.
They say the law, the first ever to have been passed by a Congress government, goes against the party's commitment to allow Indians freedom to "practise, profess and propagate" their faith. Usually seen at the forefront for defending the party, the groups now say the law amounts to a breach of faith.
Several Christian clerics, heads of Christian organisations and even the Vice-Chairman of a State Minorities Commission have written to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi in the past few weeks in this regard.
In a letter dated January 12, Abraham Mathai, Maharashtra Minorities Commission vice-chairman, wrote: "It may be recalled that even in your capacity as the chairperson of the UPA government and president of the Congress party, you had condemned these Bills publicly and also written to the All-India Christian Council about the same in a letter dated 27th July 2006. It was encouraging to know that the Congress party in all these five states under your able leadership had vehemently opposed these Bills and even demonstrated against them."
Mathai goes on to express his disappointment saying: "Such a Bill that undermines the very spirit of democracy especially in a Congress-ruled state is an embarrassment to the party, which is seen as the only hope and champion of secularism in this nation. Besides negotiating and contradicting the integrity and the stand of the Congress on this issue, such a trend when allowed to continue will even weaken our resolve in fighting against communal forces and their repressive policies."
In a separate letter to Sonia, the president of the National United Christian Forum, Archbishop Vincent M Concessao, writes that this is "the last thing that the citizens, particularly the minorities, expected from the Congress."
All those writing to Sonia have cited the other four states (Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan), which had passed similar anti-conversion laws and the Congress party's opposition to those laws.
In a strongly-worded paragraph in his letter to Sonia, secretary of All-India Christian Council Sam Paul has requested the Congress president to "constitute an inquiry against the Himachal Pradesh chief minister for anti-party activities and set the record straight by repealing this anti-human rights law of the Anti-Conversion Bill."
The law passed by the Himachal Pradesh Assembly, and given his assent by the Governor on February 10, prevents conversion by coercion or allurement --- by "inducement direct or indirect", something already defined as illegal by the law of the land. Christian clerics say the law makes Christian groups vulnerable by presuming that they engage in "forcible" conversions and hampering other work they may attempt to do.
Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, on his part, has said he "has not banned conversions, but only laid down a procedure for it, and prevented fraudulent conversions".
The Bill was brought in after the CM assured the House that it would be enacted after a BJP MLA wanted to bring in a Private Member's Bill on the subject in the last Budget session. When finally presented in the House, it was supported by the Opposition BJP and amendments brought in by them were also passed.
There are about 10,000 Christians in Himachal out of a total population of 64 lakh.