A divisive act

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

A church that was destroyed in Dangs district on December 26, 1998. - K.G. VERGHESE

A church that was destroyed in Dangs district on December 26, 1998. - K.G. VERGHESE

The Narendra Modi government's Freedom of Religion Bill seems to be yet another move aimed at targeting minority groups.

A FEW months after being voted to power, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi continues with his divisive governance. The police are now knocking on the doors of Christian organisations and asking Christian trusts about their source of funding and the number of conversions effected by them. The survey, which began just before the State government passed its Freedom of Religion Bill in the Assembly on March 26, the day Bharatiya Janata Party leader Haren Pandya was shot dead in Ahmedabad, has triggered panic within the community.

Although titled the Freedom of Religion Bill, the Bill has provisions that infringe on the right to practise one's religion. Under the legislation, anyone who wants to convert to another religion has to apply for permission from the District Collector. Those `forcing' or `alluring' people to convert are liable for criminal action, but what constitutes forced conversions or allurement is not specified. Many religious trusts set up educational and medical facilities for the poor. Does that constitute allurement? Girish Patel, a lawyer from Ahmedabad specialising in human rights issues, said: "This Bill is totally uncalled for. It is politically motivated, aimed at appeasing the hard-core Hindutva forces and diverting attention from Gujarat's real problems of development. It is another instrument to persecute the minorities."

The Bill could be used to harass Dalits who have converted to Buddhism. After the recent violence in the Gujarat, the Sangh Parivar has been using its growing clout to threaten Dalits. Recently, a Dalit organisation in Banaskantha received a pamphlet from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, stating, "Let the Ambedkarite Harijans who oppose the Hindutva ideology understand. We will not let them mix with even the soil of Hindustan; today time is in our hands. Hindutva is the ideology of true Hindus (and) it never accepts Harijans who are the offspring of the untouchable Ambedkar... Now Hindutva has become aware and it is time to teach these Ambedkarites, untouchable Harijans, a lesson. Not even the miyans (Muslims) can come to their aid now."

When the Bill was introduced in the Assembly, the Opposition raised a stink. But it was not allowed to speak, and the Bill was passed without adequate discussion. However, the Bill is yet to receive the assent of the Governor before it becomes law. Amarsinh Choudhury, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, said: "The issue of conversions is not relevant to Gujarat. Most people converted to Christianity more than 100 years back. Adivasis have no formal religion, so they do not convert but adopt a religion."

Amit Shah, Gujarat's Home Minister, said the Bill was necessary because many people were being converted forcefully. "Many organisations are exploiting people's poverty. They provide school and medical facilities only if people convert. These kind of conversions should not be permitted," he said. However, he did not have any evidence of forced conversions.

Christian organisations deny that they offer facilities on the basis of religion. "Regardless of religion, we have been doing a lot of social work for the poorest sections of society. This is not about religion. The real issue is that the Sangh Parivar wants to halt the empowerment of Dalits and Adivasis," says Fr Cedric Prakash, an activist.

The survey of Christian organisations heightened the fear among the minorities. Said Samson Christian of the All India Christian Council: "By conducting a survey, the government is trying to show that the number of conversions has increased, in order to justify the Bill. But that is not true. Census data show that the Christian population is actually decreasing." According to the 1991 Census, Christians constitute only 0.4 per cent of Gujarat's population, and Muslims are around 9 per cent, and there has been no extraordinary growth in their numbers over the past few decades.

Yet, they are targeted by the Sangh Parivar. "We are not criminals. We are involved in social work. Why are they sending the police to harass us? The government already has information on the Christian population from the Census," Samson said. The Christian Council has filed a case against the government in the Gujarat High Court, asking for a halt to the survey.

"We are not harassing them in any way," said Amit Shah. He denies that the survey had anything to do with the Freedom of Religion Bill. "Ram Vilas Paswan had raised a question in Parliament, so the Central government asked us to collect this information. It is not a survey. It is an inquiry," he said.

There have been similar surveys in the past. Madrassas (Muslim religious schools) have been under scrutiny for over a year, says Mufti Imtiaz Memon, who runs a madrassa in Ahmedabad. In 1999, widespread protests forced the government to withdraw a circular that was issued asking for similar details about Christian and Muslim organisations. It stopped the survey when the Gujarat High Court asked for an explanation. "This arbitrary and discriminatory survey is a violation of the constitutional right to privacy, right to freedom of religion and also the right to equality," said Girish Patel.

"Why are they doing surveys only for Christian and Muslim organisations? Why not other religious organisations? They also get foreign funds," says John Dayal of the All India Catholic Union. In fact, non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the United States have raised questions about the funding of certain organisations linked to the Sangh Parivar. They allege that an organisation called the Indian Development and Relief Fund (IDRF) is raising funds under the guise of development work, but the money is used to finance the Sangh Parivar's institutions. The NRIs have appealed to donors to stop contributing to the IDRF since the money is going to organisations that spread communal hate. They are also demanding that the United Kingdom and the U.S. deny the VHP recognition as a charity organisation.

The BJP government in Gujarat has been targeting Christian groups working in Adivasi areas, where the Sangh Parivar wants to establish its hold. In several parts of Gujarat's southeastern tribal belt, the Bajrang Dal has been holding `re-conversion ceremonies' at which it distributes trishuls (tridents) and pictures of Hanuman to every family. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh has also been setting up schools and charities in Adivasi areas. In central Gujarat's tribal belt, which was one of the worst hit by last year's communal violence, the Bajrang Dal had been mobilising support, trying to `awaken Hindus'. In 1998, Christians in the Dangs district of southern Gujarat were attacked on Christmas Day.

After last year's violence, surveys raise a scare in Gujarat. The mobs that hit the streets of Ahmedabad and Baroda had lists with them so that they could easily identify Muslim houses and shops. The Modi government seems to be working towards making it easier to divide and rule.

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