Rajasthan Governor Refuses to Sign Anti-Conversion Bill

The governor of the northern India state of Rajasthan has refused to sign a controversial anti-conversion bill that was feared to intensify existing inter-communal tensions.

On Tuesday, Governor Pratibha Patil returned the Rajasthan Dharma Swatantrya (Freedom of Religion) Bill 2006 that was originally passed by the state assembly on Apr. 7. The governor’s decision is said to provide hope to religious minorities facing increasing discrimination and persecution. However, according to Indo Asian News Service, it is likely that the Rajasthan state cabinet will resubmit the bill to the governor on Wednesday after receiving legal advice.

“We are delighted to hear that Mrs. Pratibha Patil has taken the bold step of refusing to ratify the state’s anti-conversion bill,” said Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) on Tuesday. “This is a much-needed boost for religious minorities in Rajasthan and, most importantly, a clear statement of the incompatibility of anti-conversion legislation with India’s secular democratic values. We hope this leads to further challenges to anti-conversion laws in five other states in India.”

According to reports, Patil said that there were parts of the bill that would directly or indirectly affect the fundamental right of religion. She also said that the government could forward the bill to India’s president for his approval.

The bill prohibits conversion by “force,” “fraud” or “allurement” with punishment including immediate arrest of the offender even before the investigation of the offense; two to five years of imprisonment; and a fine of up to $1,100. According to CSW, there had been fears that the vague definitions might easily be used to jeopardize a wide range of religious activities.

The Christian human rights group reports that Christian have been the targets of widespread attacks by Hindu extremists in the Indian state. The extremists often accuse Christians of converting people by “force” or “fraud,” and laws such as the Freedom of the Religion Bill would make Christians more vulnerable to accusations and attacks, CSW asserted.

The bill has attracted widespread condemnation from human rights and religious groups in India and around the world. On May 18, Pope Benedict XVI called for a firm rejection of “the reprehensible attempt to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions on the fundamental right of religious freedom.”

The opposition Congress Party in Rajasthan’s State Government also maintained that the bill was aimed at minorities in the state.

All India Christian Council (AICC), a partner of CSW, expressed their approval of the rejection of the bill. Dr John Dayal, Secretary General of the AICC and member of the Government’s National Integration Council, wrote a letter of thanks to the Governor of Rajasthan, saying, “We thank you for paying heed to the nationwide outcry … against the bill whose intention and nefarious motives were nothing less than to divide the people on religious lines and injure the secular polity of the state and the nation.”