Bhopal, July 25 (PTI): The Madhya Pradesh Assembly today passed a controversial bill to amend the state's Freedom of Religion Act of 1968 to prevent religious conversion by force or allurement.
Amidst an uproar in the the House by opposition members, the bill was passed by voice vote without holding discussions, prompting the Congress to later submit a memorandum to Governor Balram Jakhar asking him to return it.
The bill provides for a person wishing to change his religion to voluntarily inform the district magistrate of his intentions, sources said adding the priest or organisations performing the conversion rituals were also required to inform the authorities about it a month in advance.
Police were given the task of verifying the credentials of the priest or the organisations ahead of the conversion and that this was not being done by force or with allurement.
The bill includes provisions for penal action like one year's imprisonment and a fine against priests or organisations that perform conversions without following due procedures and a fine of up to Rs 1000 for persons who fail to inform authorities about their intentions to adopt another religion, sources said.
While the government claimed existing laws are inadequate to check conversions by force or allurement, the Congress termed the move an "interference with religious freedom and human rights".
The BJP is "practising vote bank politics and wants to spread communal hatred", Leader of Opposition Jamuna Devi said in the memorandum, adding "it aims to exploit the Christian community and tribals through the bill".
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MP anti-conversion law puts priests under lens
BHOPAL: Taking a controversial step into the arena of conversions, the BJP-majority assembly in Madhya Pradesh on Tuesday enacted a legislation that makes switching faiths tougher. The legislation has prescribed punishment for priests who conduct conversions without informing authorities one month before any such act.
The tightening of an anti-conversion law comes after months of campaigning by Hindu activists trying to prevent mass conversions into Christianity ostensibly. The amendment, meant as a shield against forcible conversions, prescribes one-year jail term and a Rs 5,000 fine for violations.
Although critics say such laws stifle the spirit of religious freedom, the MP government argues that on the contrary it would protect the personal choice of faith by removing the chance of coercion and allurement.
The passage of the Madhya Pradesh Religious Freedom (Amendment) Act made it mandatory for the priests performing the conversion ceremony to inform the state government about the exact day and place where the conversion is to take place.
Anti-conversion laws exist in Orissa and Chhattisgarh, where people can be punished for not informing the state about their plans to convert. But MP now takes it further by enforcing punishment for the priests involved in conversions.
In the original Madhya Pradesh Religious Freedom Act of 1968, the priest was not a party to such a conversion. The law required the person who wanted to switch religion to inform the district magistrate of the decision. Now Section 5 of the Act has been amended to include priests.
The priest now has to fill in an application form giving details of not just the venue and date of the ceremony, but also add 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.
This is to be followed by an administrative inquiry conducted by district officials and police superintendent, who is expected to ascertain whether there was any allurement or coercion to convert.
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Anti-conversion law made harsh in Madhya Pradesh
The central Indian Madhya Pradesh state assembly on Tuesday amended a 38-year old law against conversion, making it more stringent.
The amended Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act of 1968 aims to prevent religious "conversions by force or allurement." Many Christian leaders say the law targets Christians.
The state legislature dominated by members of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed the amendments without discussion. Opposition Congress party's resistance were ignored.
The amendments say that an individual intending to convert should inform the district magistrate or other designated authorities about his intention one month in advance. A failure will attract a fine of Rs.1,000 or imprisonment.
Similarly, the minister failing to inform authorities in the prescribed manner, stating the name and address of the converted person and the date and venue of the conversion, will be punished with imprisonment up to one year or fine of Rs. 5,000 or both.
The law says the information from the priest and the individual will help the police will verify that the act of conversion is not being done by force or allurement.
Till now the act prohibited conversion from one religion to another through force, inducement or cheating, but there was no provision for advance information.
The ruling BJP government claimed the existing laws were insufficient to check conversions by force or allurement.
The state has witnessed several anti-Christians attacks in the past months, which Hindu activist claimed were linked conversion activities.
Congress party in a memorandum asked Governor Balram Jakhar to return the bill without signing. His signature is necessary for the amendments to become part of the law.
Congress leaders and Christian leaders termed the move an interference with the religious freedom and human rights of the people.
Indira Iyengar, president of the Madhya Pradesh Christian Association, said the amendment will only encourage communal forces. She urged the governor to return the bill.
Iyengar denied allegations that Christian missionaries in the state were converting tribals forcibly.
"The community is being implicated in false cases. It is facing increasing attacks," she said adding that this year alone there were more than 20 attacks on Christians in the state.
Hindu outfits fabricate charges of converting tribals to Christianity to attack and harass Christian communities and leaders, she said.
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