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Cooking up an identity crisis

India is a secular country and prohibition on conversion is only the response to a bogeyman that does not exist.

india Updated: Sep 23, 2006 03:34 IST

Give them a loophole and they will, to mix metaphors, take  a mile. The passing of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2006, earlier this week, is a consequence of loophole- hunters within the state’s ruling party  deciding to play identity politics. According to the existing Gujarat Freedom of Religion Bill, 2003, a person wishing to convert to another religion will be required to inform the local district magistrate of the conversion, who will then verify the procedure. So far so good. The amendment now seeks to add a rider that will allow inter-denomination — for instance, Shia-Sunni, Catholic-Protestant — conversions to not require registration. Sponsored as this Bill is from a ruling party that does not, to put it mildly, have a healthy track record of fostering, or even upholding, inter-community amity, one can be excused for being suspicious about the state government’s motives.

What makes the BJP’s slip show is the fact that the amendment lumps Jainism and Buddhism as denominations of Hinduism. Considering that Jains and Buddhists are followers of a different faith — many converting from Hinduism to Buddhism to escape the former’s casteist prejudices — one smells a double rat: one of co-option and another to make the lines of exclusion clearer. Article 25 of the Indian Constitution sets down our fundamental right to freedom of religion by stating that “subject to public order, morality and health... all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion”. In other words, India does not have a State religion; it is, as the Constitution states in its preamble, a “Secular, Democratic, Republic”. Additionally, it does not define what a ‘Hindu’ — or for that matter, a ‘non-Muslim’ — is.

The loophole pounced upon by the Gujarat government is the supplement provided in Article 25 explaining who is included in the purview of Hindu law — “the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religion”. The legal definition of a ‘Hindu’ as mentioned in the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, also follows this ‘expansionary’ definition. After RSS Sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan got his hands singed last year following his statement that Sikhism was a part of Hinduism, the Gujarat BJP has been careful to keep Sikhs out of the latest identity-moulding exercise.

But one has to come back to the two non-negotiables that seem to have been lost in the noise. First, India is a secular country and prohibition on conversion is only the response to a bogeyman that does not exist. And second, matters of private faith are exactly that — the individual’s right. To create obstacles before this betrays a complex that the free people of this country — whatever be their religious denomination — can do without.