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Gujarat plans to implement controversial Religious Freedom Act

Yunus News, August 8, 2007

Gujarat, India -- Amit Shah, Minister of state for Home of the government of Gujarat, has said that he wants to complete the necessary process to bring the Gujarati Freedom of Religion Act into effect. The Act had already been passed in 2003 but because of heavy protest, and because according to some it was not in line with the Indian constitution, it was never put into practice.

The Act that the government of Gujarat passed was to prevent religious groups from actively proselytizing and converting. The Act makes it illegal for religous conversions forcefully or fraudulently. Thus it was officially aimed at protecting people from being brought to conversion unwillingly or violently.

But those who opposed the act saw it as a new approach of the Gujarat government, which is led by the nationalist and Hindu Bharatiya Janat Party, to decrease and control missionary activity in its state. First of all the law does not just restrict forced conversion, it also obliges people who seek to convert somebody to ask for permission from the District Magistrate. And secondly, every convert is to send an intimation to that same District Magistrate to inform about his or her conversion.

What bothered most however was the fact that the act also makes it illegal to convert or to attempt to convert by force of “allurement”. The text of the act defines “allurement” as follows: “an offer or any temptation in the form of any gift, gratification or grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise.”

Depending on the strictness of the interpretation of such an act, many missionary activities that are an inherent part of the practice of ones faith can become illegal. In Gujarat, where the majority is Hindu, Christian schools and hospitals for example might be seen as “offering material benefit” in an attempt to “allure” those benefiting to become Christians.

Nonviolently professing ones faith in public and proselytizing without force is in fact protected by the Indian constitution – also when religious minorities would offer certain benefits. Article 26 states that every religious denomination has the right to “to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes” and article 30 states that every minority, whether based on religion or language, has “the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice” and, most importantly, article 25 states that everybody has the right to “freely profess, practice and propagate religion.”

It is only normal in India to “profess and propagate” one's religion by use of certain gifts or by publicly confessing ones faith. Had such an act been passed in Western cities it would, for example, make Hindu groups like the Hare Krishna illegal because they give out books to the bystanders that watch their singing and dancing.

The act of 2003 was thus eventually never implemented, because the government could not frame the rules to do so. Recently however a bill was made as an amendment to the act. But Governor Nawal Kishore Sharma did not pass it, as it again did not live up to the standards of proper legislation.

The new amendment wanted to more clearly define the concept of 'conversion' but it did so in a way that aroused a lot of protest once again. The bill regarded a change of denomination to fall outside of the definition of “converting” and thus the act would not apply to those people that change from Protestantism to Catholicism or from Sunni to Shia Islam for example.

The governor returned the bill because, although it perhaps seemed to make the law less restricting, it only created a further problem as the proposed bill also considered Buddhism and Jainism to be denominations of Hinduism. Not only do Jains and Buddhist consider themselves to be different from Hinduism but even the Supreme Court of India ruled that the Jain Religion is indisputably not a part of Hindu Religion.

Whatever the motives of the people who proposed the amendment, all this has to be seen in light of an ongoing debate in which several movements advocating Hindu Nationalism oppose the recognition of Jainism as a separate religion and where they wish to represent all religions stemming from from the Hindu tradition.

The Minister of state for Home, Amit Shah, is thus also accused by his opponents of trying to win the favor of Nationalist Hindu voters when he now says he wants to bring the act of 2003 (without the amendments) into force. As the law has already been passed he claims to only take the necessary steps to enact it. The opposition calls it a “farce” as according to them he clearly uses it as a political move just before the assembly elections.

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