NEW DELHI, January 3 (Compass Direct News) - The Congress Party has passed an anti-conversion bill in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, where only 8,000 of the more than 6 million people are Christian.
The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill was passed on Saturday (December 30) during the four-day winter session of the state assembly. It remains to be signed into law.
Vijay Kumar, principal secretary of the state home department, told Compass that under the bill any person found forcibly converting another person could be imprisoned for up to two years and/or fined up to 25,000 rupees (US$565).
Kumar also said that any person wishing to convert to another religion must give prior notice of at least 30 days to the district government. "If he or she fails to do it, the penalty will be a fine up to 1,000 rupees (US$23)," he said.
Asked if the government had any official data on forcible conversions in the state to justify the bill, Kumar said no such data was available.
"It is not a reactionary measure, but a proactive one, to infuse confidence among the people of the state that the government is thoughtful of the issues," he said.
Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, termed the move of the state government a "cruel joke."
"[Congress Party leader] Sonia Gandhi had written to me expressing her government's and party's opposition to such laws being passed by the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] governments," he told Compass. "But now, her own party in Himachal Pradesh has brought about such a bill."
Dayal, who is also member of the National Integration Council, said the state chief minister, Vir Bhadra Singh, was playing into the hands of Hindu extremists.
"It is no honor to the Congress Party, and it must disown the bill and have it withdrawn," he added.
Ministry as 'Allurement'
Known as "Freedom of Religion" acts, anti-conversion laws are in force in the states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh.
Christians point out that anti-conversion laws allow Hindus to term any social work among people of other faiths as "allurement," and any talk of eternal destiny as a consequence of sin as "force."
Anti-conversion laws recognize the sacrament of baptism as conversion and hence require churches to report all baptisms of non-Christian converts to government officials.
The opposition BJP, a Hindu nationalist party that had in September 2006 promised to enact an anti-conversion law if it came into power in the state assembly elections in 2008, welcomed the bill’s passage, reported Asia News International (ANI).
The leader of the opposition, Prem Kumar Dhumal, told national daily The Indian Express last September 22, "After coming to power in Himachal Pradesh, the BJP would bring legislation against religious conversion and slaughtering of cows [considered holy by Hindus], as the present government has completely failed to protect the rights of the Hindus."
On April 7, 2006 the BJP passed a similar bill in Rajasthan state. It also passed bills to amend the existing anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh on July 25 and August 3 respectively.
In addition, the party passed a bill to amend dormant anti-conversion legislation in Gujarat on September 19 of last year.
The chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, J. Jayalalithaa, had announced the repeal of that state's "anti-conversion" law (the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act) in May 2004, following the poor performance of her party in April 2004 general elections.