EF India: Some Relief for Freedom of Religion

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The Evangelical Fellowship of India welcomes the Himachal Pradesh High Court judgment in its petition challenging the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 and Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Rules, 2007. In its judgment delivered on August 30, the High Court struck down the Section 4 of the Act which made it mandatory for a person seeking to convert his or her religion to give notice of the said conversion to the concerned district magistrate 30 days prior to the conversion. A fine of Rs. 1000/- was imposed for failure to do so.

The proviso of the section provided exemption to those reconverting to their original religion to omit giving a similar notice and thereby preventing any inquiry to any reconversion ceremonies being organized by fundamentalist groups in the state. The Court also struck down Rule 3 of the Rules, as being violative of Article 14 and ultra vires the provisions of the Constitution of India. The Court also held that Rule 5 only insofar as it relates to actions relating to Section 4 is also held to be ultra vires.

Rules 3 and 5 made it mandatory for the state to inquire into every religious conversion without providing adequate safeguards outlining the timeframe for such an enquiry or even who should conduct the inquiry at the behest of the district magistrate.

Commenting on the judgment, Rev. Dr. Atul Aghamkar Chairman of EFI said, "By striking down these provisions, the court has rightly observed that the unwarranted disclosure of the voluntary change of belief by an adult may lead to communal clashes and may even endanger the life or limb of the convertee. This is an experience of many Christian workers and seekers who have faced repeated threats and attacks for seeking to practice and propagate the religion of their choice from fundamentalists groups."

Sadly, however, the court maintained the constitutionality of the law citing the 1977 Rev Stanislaus judgment which upheld similar laws in the state of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. It is regrettable as at the time the Hon'ble Supreme Court sought to answer two very limited points, firstly if a state government had the competence to enact such a law and secondly if there was a fundamental right to convert a person.

While no laxity must be shown to those who are indulging in conversion by "force", "fraud" or "inducement", by refusing to read down the vague and overtly broad definitions, the court may have inadvertently played into the hands of communal forces. It has been repeatedly noted by human rights agencies such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the National Commission for Minorities and other civil society groups that these laws are misused by fundamentalist groups to harass and intimidate minority communities and those who seek to change their religious beliefs.

Pray for the legislature, executive and judiciary of India that justice and peace will prevail in India.

The Evangelical Fellowship of India (established 1951) is a charter member of the World Evangelical Alliance, an accredited NGO with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

Related Articles:
> EF India Publishes Half-Yearly Persecution Report 2012
> “India should abolish anti-conversion laws” several States said at the UN