The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Conversion Bill jitters for Modi

Ahmedabad, April 3: Governor S.S. Bhandari has kept Gujarat’s ruling BJP guessing as he is yet to sign the Freedom of Religion Bill 2003, nine days after the Assembly hurriedly passed the controversial legislation that seeks to ban forced conversions.

“We have no idea why the Governor has not signed the Bill,” said government spokesman I.K. Jadeja.

But a senior official in chief minister Narendra Modi’s office tried to play down the delay. “There is nothing unusual about it. The Governor might be seeking legal opinion about the Bill,” he said. “This is the usual practice.”

But legal experts pointed out that the Centre may have told the Governor to go slow. Even the chief minister might have requested Bhandari not to sign the Bill immediately, they said, because it could alienate a vast section of Dalits and tribals who are uncomfortable with such an anti-conversion law that is more stringent than the one passed by Tamil Nadu.

On March 26, the day former home minister Haren Pandya was gunned down, the Assembly had passed seven Bills without discussion amid unruly scenes. The day after, a Congress delegation led by leader of Opposition Amarsinh Chaudhary had called on Bhandari, demanding that he should not sign the Bills as they were not discussed in the House. The Bills, the delegation claimed, were passed when the House was not in order.

The Governor had reportedly called for videotapes to see how the Bills were passed and if there were any procedural irregularities. A few days later, he signed six of the Bills. But neither has he returned the anti-conversion Bill nor has he sent it for the President’s consideration. Even the state home department has no idea about its status.

Senior advocate Girish Patel, who maintains that Bhandari would eventually have to sign, says “the Governor might be creating just a show” in view of the fears expressed by Christian leaders.

The provisions of the Bill are stricter than that of Tamil Nadu’s anti-conversion law, which just requires the person conducting the ceremony to inform district officials of the conversion.

According to the Gujarat Bill, anyone willing to convert would have to seek prior permission of the district collector, who would decide whether permission can be granted. Only when the collector is “satisfied” that no force or allurement is involved, can a person be converted.

This means, minority leaders say, “the state government will decide which religion you will follow, which is an infringement on an individual’s freedom to choose his religion”.

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