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Divided House clears Jaya conversion ban

Chennai, Oct. 31: Tamil Nadu today became the fourth Indian state to adopt an anti-conversion law after a heated three-hour debate in the Assembly that saw even Mahatma Gandhi’s words make a brief appearance.

The Jayalalithaa government succeeded in passing the Bill after the Congress, the DMK, the PMK and the Left parties pressed for a division, though a voice vote had clearly favoured the ruling ADMK.

At one stage several DMK members virtually besieged the Speaker’s podium. After the division, Speaker K. Kalimuthu declared the Bill passed with 140 legislators voting for it and 73 against in the 234-member House.

Nobody stood neutral, but several MLAs left the House before the vote. Among them was dissident Tamil Maanila Congress legislator Kumaradoss, who made a fervent plea that the chief minister should somehow “defer the Bill” as the Ordinance it sought to replace was not acceptable to the minorities. However, another rebel TMC MLA, Eashwaran, voted for the Bill. The BJP fully supported it.

Jayalalithaa asserted that the legislation neither targeted any particular religion nor was it new to the country. She said Orissa and Madhya Pradesh had enacted similar laws in 1968, followed by Arunachal Pradesh in 1978. The Supreme Court, she added, had also upheld the constitutional validity of the Orissa and the Madhya Pradesh legislations in the Stanislaus-versus-Madhya Pradesh case.

Jayalalithaa agreed with Congress legislature party leader S.R. Balasubramoniyan that neither Madhya Pradesh nor Orissa was under Congress rule when such laws were passed, but shot back asking why subsequent Congress governments had not repealed them.

The ADMK chief rejected the Opposition’s charge that the state had come up with the law to “please” the BJP and the Sangh. She said that in 1985, the Justice Venugopal Commission, appointed by the MGR regime to probe the communal clashes in Kanyakumari in 1982, had attributed it mainly to “forcible religious conversion”.

The commission had also recommended the enactment of a law to ban forcible religious conversions along the lines of the other three states and the government of the day had accepted it, Jayalalithaa said. But chief minister M.G. Ramachandran died before such a law could be enacted.

This was refuted by Balasubramoniyan, who said MGR had desisted from bringing a law to ban forcible conversions as the commission had also recommended a ban on drills conducted by the RSS, another factor that contributed to communal clashes.

Jayalalithaa countered by saying that religious fundamentalists and subversive forces were trying to create tension in the state under the guise of conversions and that existing provisions of the penal code did not provide for banning them. Hence the need for a separate law.

She revealed that in 1997, in the wake of mass conversions in Ramanathapuram district, the United Front regime at the Centre had asked the Karunanidhi government what steps it had taken to curb such conversions.

The Central coalition that included the DMK and the TMC, which has since merged with the Congress, had even pointed to the Madhya Pradesh law, Jayalalithaa said.

Jayalalithaa tried to assure the minorities and Dalits. She said the new law should protect the Dalits and vulnerable sections from “exploitation” and stop religion from being brought to the market place.

The ADMK chief, however, preserved her best shot for the last. “Conversions are harmful to India. If I had power and could legislate, I should certainly stop all proselytising,” she said, quoting from Mahatma Gandhi. “It is this view the Tamil Nadu law seeks to embody,” she added.

On the Marina beach here, the Sankaracharya of Kanchi, Jayendra Saraswathi, addressed a rally to explain the meaning and contents of the law and allay the fears of the minorities.

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