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Conversion law faces court test

New Delhi, May 18: The controversial Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act is likely to be challenged in the state high court by a broad-based group of human rights activists, peace workers and Dalit parties.

According to Father Cedric Prakash of the Ahmedabad-based United Forum for Human Rights, the Act affects “not just religious minorities but (raises) a wider question which affects all communities”.

The Act, which came into being on March 26 this year, has been criticised on three main grounds.

First, it stipulates that everybody involved in the act of conversion — from the proselytisers to the person who was to be converted — should seek permission of the district magistrate concerned. This provision does not exist in the anti-conversion laws legislated so far, including the recent Prohibition of Forcible Conversion Act passed by the Tamil Nadu government.

“This is the first Act which involves the state directly in the conversion process,” said Ahmedabad-based lawyer and human rights activist Girish Patel. “It means every case of conversion, including those which are purely voluntary and have no allegation of force or fraud, will require the sanction of the state.”

Patel contended that this provision was a “flagrant” violation of Article 25 of the Constitution that enshrines the right to propagate religion.

“It means the state is in picture before the event and not after it, like censorship of the press which requires publications to obtain official clearance before printing a news item,” he said.

Patel said he feared that prior intimation may cause the word to spread and “once that happens, religious fanatics will start their protests”.

“This will naturally create a law and order problem and that will be a reason to stop conversions, including the voluntary ones,” he pointed out.

The second point of contention is the “over-inclusive” definition of conversions that includes everything in its sweep — allurement, force and fraud.

“Establishment of educational institutions and hospitals by private religious groups are constitutionally permissible activities but by stating that allurement includes grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise, the Act has ended the distinction between constitutional and unconstitutional activity,” Patel said.

And finally, Prakash contends that the Act is “anti-Dalit”. He quoted from Section 4 that states: “Whoever contravenes the provision of Section 3 (prohibition of forcible conversion) shall, without prejudice to any civil liability, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and also be liable to fine, which may extend to rupees fifty thousand.”

But, Prakash points out, it also underlines that whoever attempted to proselytise minors, women, Dalits and tribals would face an enhanced punishment of four years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs 1 lakh.

“This is nothing but using brute state force to prevent tribals, Dalits and others who want to choose other faiths and liberate themselves from inhuman discrimination,” he said.

Sources said that given the circumstances in Gujarat after the BJP’s return to power, those who wanted to contest the law were being counselled to exercise “patience and restraint” rather than plunge into the court.

“We wish to move the petition on behalf of a widely represented group instead of just minority organisations,” they said, which is why outfits like Sabrang, Lokadhikar Sangh, Setu and Dalit Panthers were expected to be in the forefront. “Otherwise, in the communalised ambience the reaction would be to see it as just another anti-Hindu move and this would be most unfortunate because going by statistics, Gujarat is one state which has not been affected by religious conversions,” the sources said.

The other point being considered is that the Supreme Court had earlier upheld similar laws passed by non-Congress coalition governments in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Eminent constitutional jurist H.M. Seervai had then made a case for a review appeal and termed the apex court’s ruling as “against the Constitution and without logic”.

Sources, however, claim that there is enough substance in the Constituent Assembly debates to buttress the view that “conversion was an essential part of proselytising religions”.

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