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Dalit threat to Gujarat conversion law

The Telegraph
15 April, 2003

Ahmedabad: Fulfilling one of its election promises, the Narendra Modi government has passed the controversial Gujarat Freedom of Religion Bill 2003 that was ratified recently by Governor S.S. Bhandari.

Ideally, the ruling BJP should be happy that Bhandari, who took nearly two weeks to study the Bill and kept the party guessing about its fate, has signed the Bill without recommending a single change.

But that is hardly the mood in the BJP camp. The reason: a Dalit organisation is threatening mass conversion as a mark of protest.

The state government, which had hurriedly passed the Bill that sought a ban on forced conversions, now faces the real challenge with the Dalits threatening to embrace Buddhism. They claim that conversion is their fundamental right.

The Bahujan Sangarsh Manch, an organisation that has been fighting for the rights of Dalits, had described the Bill as a “conspiracy to perpetuate their oppression”.

The convener of the Manch, Valjibhai Patel, the most vocal opponent of the anti-conversion law, intends to provoke the government to take action against them by organising the mass conversion.

The provisions of this law are stricter than those of the anti-conversion Act passed in Tamil Naidu.

The Tamil Nadu law requires just the person conducting the ceremony to inform district officials about the conversion.

But in Gujarat, anyone willing to convert is required to seek prior permission from the district collector who will decide whether permission can be granted.

The Dalits, bent on defiance, plan to send thousands of telegrams to the chief minister and district officials to inform them about their intention to convert. “We will not seek their permission to embrace Buddhism. We will just inform them. We will tell them that they are free to take whatever action they want to take,” Patel said.

A Christian delegation from the state and the National Commission for Minorities had also objected to the provision that made it mandatory for conversions to be approved by the district collector.

The Manch, a voluntary organisation, has decided to challenge the law in the high court once the rules are framed and published in the state gazette. The government is in the process of framing the rules.

“We are just waiting for the rules to be framed. Once the process is over, we will work out our strategy to challenge the law by whatever means we can,” Patel said, asserting that conversion was a fundamental right.

The Dalit leader said the proposed mass conversion would not be a “political stunt” but a well thought-out strategy to get rid of the “oppressive Hindu caste system”.

He said the Hindu religion had deprived the Dalits of their basic rights and now, by making anti-conversion laws, the government wants to ensure that they do not get out of the oppressive and hierarchical caste system.

Dalits constitute 7.5 per cent of Gujarat’s population. The state, according to the National Crime Record Bureau, ranks third in terms of atrocities committed against backward classes.