The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Centre eyes SC escape hatch

New Delhi, Oct. 31: Caught between Hindutva hardliners and responsibilities of upholding the secular structure of the Constitution, the Centre is looking to the Supreme Court to quash the Jayalalithaa government’s controversial law banning religious conversions.

The Centre is aware that the Tamil Nadu law has the potential of snowballing into a major controversy that can polarise the nation and ignite religious passions.

Moreover, with Jayalalithaa emerging as an ally of the BJP, it knows that the ADMK regime’s move will be under scrutiny when Parliament’s winter session begins on November 18.

So far, the Centre has not made a single comment on it. The home ministry has washed its hands of the issue, saying it is a state matter and the Centre cannot interfere.

The other problem the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government is confronted with is that the law has the support of both the BJP and the Sangh parivar.

The BJP has long criticised Christian missionaries for “alluring” Hindus to change their faith. Party hardliners have welcomed the conversion ban and promised to replicate it in Gujarat if the BJP under Narendra Modi is returned to power in the December elections.

But, for the Centre, such actions would only go against what it is trying to project —that India is a secular, multi-cultural country. Any dilution of this image would help Pakistan. Pervez Musharraf has made use of the Gujarat riots to describe India as a country unsafe for its Muslim minorities.

However, the BJP is also looking ahead to a string of Assembly polls next year and to the general elections in 2004.

The party is pushing the Hindutva line for votes in Gujarat. If it succeeds, hardliners will try to force the hand of the moderates in the government to come out with sweeping acts like Jayalalithaa’s law.

So moderates in the government hope that the debate on conversions shifts to the court. The judiciary could then once again come to the rescue of politicians by quashing the law.

Successive Indian governments, including ones led by the Congress, have often shifted responsibility to the judiciary. Ayodhya is still being debated in court.

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