The ruling BJP in Gujarat on Tuesday piloted through the assembly an amendment that clubs Jainism and Buddhism with Hinduism. Passed by voice vote amid vociferous protests by Congress legislators, the amendment also triggered a debate on its validity outside the House.
Introduced in the assembly as an amendment to the anti-conversion law — officially called the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003 — the bill states that Jainism and Buddhism shall be construed as denominations of Hindu religion.
There are around 5.25 lakh Jains — about 1 per cent of the population — and around 18,000 Buddhists in the state.
In Delhi, members of the two communities and of minority panels said Jainism and Buddhism should not be treated as branches of Hinduism. They termed the move arbitrary. Hamid Ansari, chairman of the National Commission for Minorities, said: “I think legislators cannot, and should not, decide the religious identity of a community this way. This decision has to be taken by the community itself in a democratic manner.”
Udit Raj, a Buddhist and chairman of the All-India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, said, “It is an arbitrary move. The entire Buddhist community opposes it. We can never be termed Hindus. There will be protests from Ahmedabad to Delhi and we will also convey our displeasure to the prime minister.”
Chakresh Jain, president of the Delhi Jain Samaj, said the community would plan protests across the nation. “The move is absolutely against the wishes of the Jain community. We are not Hindus at all.”
The amendment bill also defines ‘conversion’ — which the anti-conversion law prohibits without prior permission from district authorities. It says if a person belonging to a particular sect adopts another sect of the same religion, it will not be considered conversion.
Changes within a religion -- like a Shia becoming a Sunni or a Catholic becoming a Protestant -- are allowed. Such changes will also be allowed to Jains, Buddhists and Hindus.
But renouncing one religion to adopt another will be considered conversion.
The amendment will come into effect only after Governor Nawal Kishore Sharma gives his assent to the bill. The governor has four options before him: give his assent, withhold his assent, reserve the bill for the consideration of the president or return the bill to the assembly with a message for its reconsideration.
In 2003, the Gujarat assembly had passed the anti-conversion law but it could not be implemented even after it got the assent of the then governor Sunder Singh Bhandari. The reason was that the law lacked clarity on what forced conversion meant and to whom it applied. Tuesday's amendment was meant to give the specifics.
But legal experts in Gujarat say the bill will not survive the scrutiny of the Supreme Court. Former minister Shaktisinh Gohil, a lawyer himself, told the Hindustan Times that the Constitution recognises Jainism and Buddhism as distinct religions. Declaring them as denominations of Hinduism is ultra vires of the Constitution, Gohil said.
In 2004, there was a similar controversy in Punjab when RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan said Sikhism was a part of Hinduism. Sikh organisations, including the Akalis, had opposed the remarks, saying they had a separate identity.