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Conversion ban tops Modi list

Gandhinagar, Jan. 23: When the Gujarat Assembly session starts on February 25, chief minister Narendra Modi’s top priority will be to ban religious conversions.

Modi has directed the home department to prepare a formal draft of the legislation. Assembly Speaker Magandas Patel said he “expects the Bill to be passed in the coming Assembly session’’.

Patel, who had come up with a similar private member’s Bill in the previous Assembly on August 30, 1999, believes the proposed Bill would be a revised, updated version of his draft. It was not tabled then reportedly under pressure from the Centre.

The new Bill’s provisions are said to be a copy of the Acts passed in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. Modi has said that the anti-conversion Bill would incorporate the best provisions from similar legislation enacted in four states, most recently in Tamil Nadu.

Sources said the Freedom of Religion Bill is likely to be a near replica of the Tamil Nadu Act, which prohibits conversion from one religion to another and provides up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs 50,000 for those who seek to convert by “force” or “allurement”.

It is as yet unclear whether the legislation would treat all conversions “on a par’’; whether reconversion — the process the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is carrying out in tribal areas – would be permissible under the law. Some in the BJP seek to distinguish between conversion to religions of Indian origin — such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism — and to Islam and Christianity.

The first is seen as a move from one sect of Hinduism to another. So the law cannot ban conversions to Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, some in the BJP say.

“A law on conversion,’’ said a senior BJP leader, “should not apply to those seeking reconversion into Hinduism because it is just a return to the original fold.”

This is exactly the VHP’s argument as well. According to the Sangh outfit, 30 per cent of tribals in the eastern Gujarat belt were forcibly converted to Christianity, so the law should not ban their reconversion.

Analysts, however, wonder if the law can discriminate between religions to facilitate re-conversion. In the four states where conversion is banned, the law applies equally to all religions.

Indications are VHP pressure might just make Gujarat an exception.

With the Congress ambivalent — as a similar law is in force in the party-ruled Madhya Pradesh and its unwillingness to support such a move at the cost of alienating Christians — the situation is ideal for the passage of the proposed anti-conversion Bill.

Congress Legislature Party leader Amarsinh Chaudhary said his party will decide on its stance once the Bill is taken up by the BJP government.

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