Saturday, July 06, 2013

Anti Conversion bill proposed in Maharashtra

Around 50 Catholic organisations from across Mumbai have written to Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan asking him to withdraw an anti-conversion bill, which they say will be introduced in the monsoon session of the Assembly. The letter reads, "It has been brought to our attention through reliable sources that there is move to introduce an Anti-Conversion Bill by your government. First it was a total disbelief and then a shocking surprise if this is true, that a secular government in the state of Maharashtra would ever think of introducing such a Bill which is anti-minority and against the constitutional rights of a minority. This Anti-Conversion Bill should be confined to the dustbin of history."

"The Home Department has already prepared the bill. But introducing such legislation will not only be an anti-minority act but will increase the persecution of the minorities," said Dolphy Dsouza, former vice-president of the All India Catholic Union and president of the Bombay Catholic Sabha. He said that Catholics would protest in a big way if the Bill is tabled.

This is the fourth attempt to table the controversial bill in the Assembly. In 1996, BJP MLA from Mumbai, Mangal Prabhat Lodha had introduced it as a private member's bill under the name of Maharashtra Dharma Swantantrya Adhiniyam (Maharashtra Freedom of Religion Act), but it failed to gain any support. In April 2005, an anti-conversion bill was proposed by the then Home Minister Siddharam Mhetre of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine, but the proposal was struck down by the then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. The late CM reasoned that there was no need for an anti-conversion legislation as existing laws had enough provisions to tackle the "problem".

In 2012, BJP MLA Sudhir Mungantiwar voiced the need to introduce such a bill, but in the long run the bill did not materialise. According to Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MLA Nawab Malik, he was the only MLA to protest against Mungantiwar. Incidentally the NCP handles the Home Department portfolio.

Malik who is also the spokesperson of NCP, told this newspaper that if the bill is introduced by their ally the Congress, they will oppose it. "The RSS agenda will not be tolerated. Every person has a right to choose one's own religion. It is a fundamental right. We will put a stop to the bill in case this happens," he said.

When contacted, Congress leader and MLC Sanjay Dutt said that there was no cause for concern as the bill would be debated in the Assembly and only then passed. "Every draft of legislation introduced in the Assembly becomes the property of the House and it is debated and discussed upon in great detail. The government will take a stand only after appropriate discussion on the bill," he said, adding that this is not an ordinance that it should require such immediate concern.

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Maharashtra home department proposes anti-conversion law.

After several failed attempts, including the one in 1996 when a proposal was put forth by BJP legislator Mangal Prabhat Lodha, the state is contemplating an anti-conversion bill yet again.

A senior state government official said that the bill was proposed by the home department a few months ago and was being examined by the departments concerned.

“It started as a private member bill, but was proposed by the home department about five months ago. We are currently examining it,” said a senior official from the minorities development department, on condition of anonymity.

“In a recent meeting, the Christian groups were against the bill,” the official added.

Dolphy D’souza, a Catholic activist and former vice-president of the All India Catholic Union, on Thursday, sent a letter to the chief minister, urging him to ensure the bill does not get passed.

“I learned from a highlevel source in the bureaucracy about two weeks ago that the bill was being looked at again. So, I sent a letter to the chief minister and the additional chief secretary of the minorities development department, asking them to ensure that the bill is discarded. Minorities such as Christians are already being harassed by authorities on false accusations of forceful conversions. This will become another tool for harassment,” he said, adding that he would ask other groups to start a campaign against the bill soon

Munaf Hakim, chairman of the state minorities commission, said that he was not in favour of the bill.

“After reading the bill, it is clear that it could be a source of harassment. The minorities commission will never support it,” said Hakim.

The bill would make official permission from district level authorities necessary for religious conversion.

Activists said it could be used to harass religious groups through false allegations.

The additional chief secretary of the state home department was unavailable for comment.

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