NCM opposes Cong-ruled Himachal CM’s anti-conversion law

By Pervez Bari,

Bhopal, May 11: The National Commission for Minorities, (NCM), in India has reportedly expressed its profound concern over the attempt in Himachal Pradesh’s Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 and reportedly by similar pieces of legislation contemplated in some others States, to interfere with the basic right of freedom of religion that is the birth right of every Indian.

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The NCM has appealed to the Central and State Governments, civil society groups and individual citizens to recognize the existence of such trends and take timely steps to reverse them.

It may be pointed out here that the Act 2006, enacted by the Legislative Assembly of Himachal Pradesh, received the assent of the Governor on February 18, 2007.

The NCM has examined the provisions of the Act and the Statement of Objects and Reasons. The latter refers to “rise in conversions based on allurement generally” and to “a persistent demand from across the different strata of the society, urging the State Government to curb it” as, otherwise, it may “erode the confidence and mutual trust between the different religious and ethnic groups in the State”.

According to the 2001 Census, religious minorities constitute 4.53 per cent of the total population of Himachal Pradesh. Of these, Muslims account for 1.97 per cent, Sikhs 1.19 per cent, Buddhists 1.25 per cent and Christians 0.13 per cent. Media reports relating to the adoption of the Act suggest conversions by “force” to Christianity as the prime motivation for the new law. No specific data on such conversions, however, has been cited officially or in media reports.

The commission has noted with concern the terminology used in the Act and the methodology prescribed for implementing it. The definition of “force” includes “threat of divine displeasure” and “Social excommunication”; neither of these is considered an offence in the Indian legal system.

The Act prescribes that a person intending to convert from one religion to another must give a notice of at least 30 days to the District Magistrate who then “shall get the matter enquired into by such agency as he may deem fit”. No time limit is prescribed for the conduct of such an enquiry nor have its modalities been defined. The failure to give such a notice, on the part of the person intending to convert, would be punishable by a fine. No such notice however is required if a person reverts back to his “original religion”.

Since provisions of existing law already cover cases in which fraud or force are involved, the specific rationale cited for the enactment is not understood. On the contrary, the provision of notice and enquiry, and that too selectively, is tantamount to a gross interference with the individual liberties of citizens and would allow state functionaries to interfere in matter of personal life and religious beliefs. More seriously, it would impinge on the freedom of conscience, and free profession, practice and propagation of religion guaranteed by Article 25 of the Constitution of India. ([email protected])