NATIONAL

Religious Freedom Bill passed in Rajasthan

Special Correspondent

“To check conversions by force”

JAIPUR: Despite strong resistance by the Opposition Congress, the Rajasthan Assembly on Thursday passed the contentious Religious Freedom Bill after an acrimonious debate lasting three hours with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party affirming that the proposed law would check conversions by force and allurement and promote “freedom of conscience.”

Agitated Congress MLAs staged a walkout after the House passed the Bill by voice vote, in which the treasury members endorsed the proposed legislation and rejected the Opposition’s vociferous demand to defer it by a month to send it for determining the public opinion. Earlier, the Congress members trooped into the well of the House and raised slogans against the BJP-led government.

The Bill of 2008 was re-introduced in the Assembly despite the previous Rajasthan Dharma Swatantraya Bill, 2006, still awaiting the assent of President Pratibha Patil. Ms. Patil, as the then Governor of Rajasthan, returned the Bill to the State Government in May 2006 asking it to get it cleared from the then President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

‘Unconstitutional’

Congress members such as C.P. Joshi, B.D. Kalla, Harimohan Joshi and Zubair Khan, registering their strong opposition to the re-introduction of the Bill, said this act of the ruling party was not only unconstitutional but also smacked of its intention to harass the minority communities by giving powers to the authorities to even seize their properties under the pretext of “contemplation of conversion.”

Harimohan Sharma cited the Supreme Court’s ruling of 1962 in the case of Purushottam Namboodiri vs. State of Kerala laying down that a Bill cannot be introduced in the House during the pendency of another Bill on the same subject. “By bringing in the same legislation again, the BJP is showing disrespect to the highest constitutional office of the country,” he charged.

The lone CPI(M) MLA, Amra Ram, said the BJP-led Government was out to serve the “majoritarian saffron agenda” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh through the Bill by targeting the minority communities. “Christians being hounded near the Chief Minister’s residence in Jaipur and the Emmanuel Mission in Kota being viciously targeted are clear instances of the State government’s real intentions.”

BJP: need of the hour

However, BJP MLAs such as Jogeshwar Garg and Subhash Bahedia affirmed that a law restricting forcible religious conversions was the need of the hour as such activities had adversely affected communal harmony. “Problems of fanaticism, terrorism and secessionism have always arisen in the areas where Hindus were reduced to minority by large-scale conversions,” said Mr. Garg.

The House witnessed noisy scenes when Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria maintained that Ms. Patil had not clearly exercised her discretion to reserve the Bill for consideration of the President. His assertion that the then Governor’s decision could be interpreted in more than one way stirred up loud protests by the Opposition MLAs.

When the Congress and other Opposition members, raising slogans against what they termed the government’s disrepect to the President, trooped into the well of the House, Deputy Speaker Ramnarain Bishnoi put the Bill to voting and it was passed with the majority of the members supporting it.

Outside the Assembly, civil rights groups staged a demonstration to register their protest against the Bill and affirmed that its provisions infringed upon the citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of religion. They also sent a memorandum addressed to Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje calling upon her to withdraw the contentious Bill.

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