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Sonia, Secularism & India’s Christians

No longer the summer capital, Simla, for all we hear or care about what happens there, could be another country, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Mar 18, 2007 00:12 IST

No longer the summer capital, Simla, for all we hear or care about what happens there, could be another country. Even those who visit as tourists don’t bother about the politics of Himachal. For most of us the state is so small it simply doesn’t count.

Yet unbeknownst to many, an event has occurred that could change the way we think of the ruling Congress party and, I dare say, Sonia Gandhi. I only hope it is not a herald of worse to come.

Last month, the Governor signed into law the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act. Despite that misleading title, it’s an anti-conversion Bill identical to what BJP governments have passed in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In her time, Jayalalithaa passed a similar law in Tamil Nadu before repealing it by ordinance.

The Act criminalises all forced and fraudulent conversions although, like its BJP counterparts, its silent about re-conversions. The problem is such conversions are already illegal under existing laws. There was no need for further legislation. Secondly, Himachal only has 10,000 Christians out of a population of 64 lakh. That’s 0.001 per cent!

So what will this Act achieve? It won’t stop forced or fraudulent conversions because there aren’t any happening to stop. But what it will do is suggest to non-Christians that 10,000 Himachal Christians have been indulging in illegal conversion activities. The Act targets them by branding them with guilt. It points fingers at them. It demonises them.

If you ask me, the intention behind this Act is obvious. The Himachal Congress Party, which faces elections next March, is pandering to Hindu votes by borrowing BJP policies. To corroborate this interpretation, I’m told the chief minister introduced the measure after a BJP MLA tried to do the same thing through a private member’s Bill. Equally significantly, all the amendments tabled by the BJP were accepted and passed.

Now the critical question is: was Sonia Gandhi aware this was happening? Read on and judge for yourself.

The Act was passed by the Himachal Assembly in December. It was only signed into law in February. In the interim the Christian community lobbied Sonia Gandhi to repeal or, at least, withhold the measure. They did so in unequivocal terms.

Archbishop Concessao wrote: “This is certainly the last thing that the citizens, particularly the minorities, expected from the Congress … (it) contradicts the integrity and the stand of Congress on this issue”. In his letter Abraham Mathai, the vice president of the Maharashtra Minorities Commission, said: “I request you to use your good offices with the Himachal Pradesh government to withdraw this Bill which seeks to strangulate the spirit of freedom.”

In fact, such appeals should have been unnecessary. In July 2006, when John Dayal of the All India Christian Council wrote to Sonia Gandhi about the anti-conversion acts passed by BJP governments, she replied: “The Congress party’s views on this are well-known. However these are enactments passed by state legislatures where the Congress is in Opposition. The Congress has opposed them strongly.”

Yet what did Sonia Gandhi do? First, she ignored the letters. Neither the Archbishop nor Dr Mathai have received replies. Second, she did not intervene. Consequently three weeks or so later the Governor signed the Bill into law.

I’m not surprised Indian Christians feel doubly betrayed. First they feel let down by Congress. Do you remember how the party protested when the BJP — or Jayalalithaa — passed similar laws? Yet today it’s turned turtle and done the same thing itself. Second, if Sonia Gandhi, who was a born Catholic in a Catholic country, fails to respond to the desperate pleas of Indian Christians can you doubt they will feel additionally insecure and vulnerable?

The paradox is Sonia Gandhi has shown that Congress critics could be correct. They’ve always claimed the party’s secularism is simply a cloak of convenience. After all, they argue, it was Congress that opened the doors of the Babri Masjid, began the ‘89 campaign offering Ram Rajya and promised to create a Christian state in Mizoram. The party preaches secularism but often acts with sectarian motives in mind. The Himachal anti-conversion law fits into this practice.

But I have a further niggling doubt. These days Sonia Gandhi calls herself a Hindu. She’s distanced herself from Italy and Christianity. She’s even told La Republica she can’t remember her mother tongue. So, in her eyes, is this the proper way for a homegrown Indian politician to behave?