India: Converts face prison without permission from authorities

Published 24 July 2013  |  

India's Madhya Pradesh state has passed legislation that would send those who convert and their religious leaders to prison for failing to obtain permission from authorities at least one month prior to conversion.

According to a story by Morning Star News, the bill requires the governor's signature before becoming law.

Existing law in Madhya Pradesh requires those who convert to notify government officials after conversion. The new legislation not only requires prior permission but also obligates religious leaders to report the conversions, and it increases prison terms from one to three years for clergy and converts who fail to do so.

Under the bill in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled state, Morning Star News said religious leaders must fill out an application form giving details of the venue and date of conversion ceremonies and provide a list of names and addresses of those seeking conversion. This application has to be submitted at the district magistrate's office a month before conversion.

The bill, which cleared Madhya Pradesh's Legislative Assembly on July 10, includes a provision for a police inquiry on the conversion request. If the prospective converts are minors, women or members of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes - disadvantaged people eligible for affirmative action benefits - the legislation stipulates a jail term of up to four years and/or a fine of up to 100,000 rupees (US$1,680).

With India already on a "watch list" of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Morning Star News reported India's Christians were horrified at the bill's level of interference in private personal belief. In August 2012, the Himachal Pradesh High Court struck down similar legislation.

"These laws are political gimmicks used to polarise voters along religious lines - it is common knowledge that these laws have already been misused to terrorise the minority Christian community across the country," Tehmina Arora, an attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom India, told Morning Star News.

The bill is an amendment to Madhya Pradesh's existing "anti-conversion" law of 1968. Called "Freedom of Religion Acts," such laws forbid forcible or fraudulent conversions, but Hindu nationalists have use d them to arrest and harass Christians with false accusations.

"The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief noted in a report after a visit to India that there is a risk that 'Freedom of Religion Acts' may become a tool in the hands of those who wish to use religion for vested interests or to persecute individuals on the ground of their religion or belief," Arora said.

Indira Iyengar, president of the Madhya Pradesh Christian Association, told Morning Star News the association has written to state Gov. Ram Naresh Yadav and other officials urging them to reject the amendment bill. The governor's post is largely ceremonial, and Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan holds most executive powers.

In its memorandum, Morning Star News reported, the association stated that the bill not only contradicts various Articles of the Constitution of India but also violates states' obligations under the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Such legislation will create religious tensions, the association stated, urging the governor to protect the rights of religious minorities.

Sujit Williams, president of the Grand Council of Christians (Isai Maha Sangh), called upon all citizens to reject the bill, saying it "violated the provision of various Articles in the Constitution of India."

Anand Muttungal, coordinator of the council, said the bill was unnecessary.

"The government has the right to enact a law, but it should be in accordance with the Constitution of India," Morning Star News reported he said. "Moreover, there is no alarming situation in Madhya Pradesh of conversions for the need of such an amendment."

The Hindu extremist BJP proposed and passed the legislation with little discussion. Party and state officials have been strangely silent on the proposal, and none was willing to comment to Morning Star News.

Himachal Pradesh Version Struck Down

Himachal Pradesh's "anti-conversion" law of 2006 required prospective converts to give prior notice, and the state high court last August ruled it unconstitutional in response to a petition filed by the ADF-backed Evangelical Fellowship of India.

Under the law, a prospective convert's intentions had been subject to a mandatory state inquiry.

The high court recognised that the provisions violated the fundamental right of priv acy safeguarded under the right to life in the India Constitution.

"A person's belief or religion is something very personal to him," Morning Star News reported the court ruled. "The state has no right to ask a person to disclose what is his personal belief. The only justification given is that public order requires that notice be given."

The court continued, "We are of the considered view that in case of a person changing his religion and notice being issued to the so-called prejudicially affected parties, chances of the convertee being subjected to physical and psychological torture cannot be ruled out. The remedy proposed by the state may prove to be more harmful than the problem."

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