It was totally unexpected from a government whose ultimate command was in the hands of Smt Sonia Gandhi. But it is a reality now. The Congress-led government in Himachal Pradesh has created history. The Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, is very much concerned about the working of Christian Missionaries in this hilly state, has got a legislation passed in the state assembly to check conversion by coercion or allurement. Himachal Pradesh has become the first Congress ruled state to have anti-conversion law.
The Bharatiya Janata Party which was raising this demand for a long time in and outside the Vidhan Sabha supported the government move wholeheartedly. Some amendments proposed by B.J.P. were accepted. No Christian leader in the state has opposed the act. They claim that it will not affect their functioning. Different social, cultural and religious organisations have expressed their happiness and asked the government to implement the law in letter and spirit. However, the ?Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act -2006? is yet to be sent to the Governor for his assent.
The Christian Missionaries have intensified their operations in towns as well as in rural areas in the past few years. A number of incidents of conversion by allurement and misleading the innocent people have been reported in the media. According to a report of state C.I.D. as many as 548 persons were converted to Christianity in the year 2002 alone. Out of these, 450 persons were converted in Shimla district only. The state agencies were not ready to reveal any data of the period after 2002 as Congress came into power in 2003. But it is believed that the pace of conversion was increased during the present regime and thousands of persons were converted across the state.
The conversion by force or allurement has been made cognisable offence under the ?Freedom of Religion Act?. Anybody found guilty of violation of this Act will be liable for punishment of imprisonment upto a period of two years and / or fine which may be extended upto Rs. 25,000. If any woman, child, member of Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe is converted by unlawful means, in that case the period of imprisonment will be upto three years and fine may be extended upto Rs. 50,000. These cognisable offences are required to be enquired by a police officer of the rank not below of Inspector. An important provision in this Act is that the person willing to change his or her religion will be required to give notice to the district magistrate one month in advance. The district magistrate will make an enquiry through the S.P. or any other appropriate agency. On the basis of enquiry report, he will decide whether the demand for conversion is genuine or not. If anybody changes his or her religion without giving one month notice, he or she will be liable for a fine of Rs.1000/- and the person will be treated as not converted. There is one more important provision under which return to ones original religion will not be treated as conversion and hence there will be no requirement to give prior notice.
Last year in the monsoon session of state assembly, a B.J.P. member (now state president) Jairam Thakur had raised this issue and demanded a legislation to keep a check on conversion by allurement or coercion. He and another B.J.P. member Dr. Rajiv Bindal had alleged in the house that the government was misleading the people on this matter by saying that there were no reports of religious conversions in the State. At this, the Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh had admitted that some poor and dalits were undergoing conversions with the aim of achieving social status but they did not enjoy equal status even after conversion and were demanding reservations. He also accepted that the Christian missionaries were active in all the twelve districts of the state but said ?conversion by giving allurements to poor people could not be allowed.?
During the last one year, the Congress government was under tremendous pressure from B.J.P. and other nationalist organisations as the newspapers, particularly Hindi dailies, were highlighting the incidents of conversions and the sentiments of people were going against the ruling Congress. The assembly elections in the State were due in February next year and the Congress thought that the B.J.P. could make it a major election issue. But the leader of opposition in the Vidhan Sabha and former Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal, while talking to Organiser, said, ?It is not an election issue for us at all. It is an issue of concern for all those who believe in strengthening the national integration, peace and harmony between different communities and religions. Conversion by coercion or allurement is against the basic principles of our Constitution. We have already seen its ill effects in the north-east and some other parts of the country. It is a crime against humanity. This is the reason why we supported the government when it came out with the bill. We are really thankful to Virbhadra Singh and his party for such courageous decision to bring the bill. He has fulfilled our demand. I had proposed some amendments in the bill which were accepted in the right manner.?
Shri Virbhadra Singh has said that it was a persistent demand from across the different strata of the society urging to curtail the conversion of religion based on force or allurements. He has also admitted that ?there was a rise in conversions based on allurements. Unless checked well in time, this practice may erode the confidence and mutual trust between different ethnic groups and religious communities.? But the president of state Congress and Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha), Smt Viplove Thakur told Organiser, ?I do not know what was the actual need to bring such legislation. Maybe the government has some information about the conversions by coercion or allurement. But as far as Congress party is concerned, we have no information about such type of conversions; neither I have heard any demand from common people to bring anti-conversion law.? She further said that our Constitution has given right to every citizen to adopt or propagate any religion, but misuse of this freedom is wrong.
Interestingly, Christians in the state have not opposed this act. Pastor Rev. D. Rosers of Evangelical Church of North India, Shimla, when contacted, said, ?We are not opposing this law as it will have no impact on our work. This law forbids conversions by force or allurements, which we never do. We welcome only those in the fold of Christianity who come to us with full faith in Lord. And our social work for the needy and poor can not be treated as allurement.? On a pointed question, he said, ?I have nothing to comment on reactions coming from U.S. etc. over this law in H.P., but it is clear that we are not opposing it?
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