New Delhi, 9 March 1997
26. Joshi sparks off row
over Religion Bill

MUMBAI, MARCH 8 - Chief Minister Manohar Joshi’s assurance to a delegation of Catholic leaders, last month, has surprised Mangalprabhat Lodha, BJP MLA from Malabar Hill.

The issue is the Maharashtra Freedom of Religion Bill, introduced by Lodha as a private member’s Bill in the last Assembly session at Nagpur. The Bill seeks to make the use of force or allurement for religious conversion a cognisable offence in the State.

The Bill, which did not come up for discussion though it was introduced on December 20 last year, the last day of the session, is expected to be taken up in the forthcoming Budget session of the State Legislature, later this month.

Joshi has apparently assured the delegation, comprising Cardinal Simon Pimenta, the former Archbishop of Mumbai, Bishop Thomas Dabre and Father Denis Pereira, secretary of the Archdiocese Board of Education, that the Catholic community should not be anxious about the introduction of the Bill, since it was a private member’s Bill.

An upset Lodha refuses to believe that the Chief Minister could have made such a statement. “It would amount to an infringement of a legislator’s right to move a private Bill. It is likely that the Catholic leaders have misquoted Joshi,” Lodha said.

Capt. Jimmy Martin, spokesman for the Archbishop, however, confirmed that the delegation, which met Joshi on January 23 this year, had, in fact, quoted the Chief Minister correctly.

“The delegation met Joshi after the incident at the Canossa High School (Shiv Sena staging protests over a teenager’s conversion to a Christian sect),” Martin told this reporter.

“It was in that context that they met the Chief Minister, and the private member’s Bill was mentioned. The Chief Minister did assure the community as has been quoted in newspapers,” Martin confirmed.

Lodha is not convinced. “I am not going to withdraw this Bill. So, it will have to be put to vote, whether any community likes it or not. Besides, the Bill is not against religious conversion per se. I do not see how anyone can fear a move which opposes the use of fraudulent means in religious conversion,” he said.

He said he would also consider a privilege motion against the Catholic leaders, “if they do not withdraw the Press release they have sent to the newspapers regarding the Chief Minister’s assurance”.

Despite repeated attempts, the Chief Minister was not available for comment.

If the Bill becomes an Act, then the use of force or allurement for religious conversions will become punishable with a maximum jail term of one year or fine upto Rs. 5,000, or both.

The punishment will be double if the offence is committed in respect of a minor, woman or person belonging to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes.

Anyone performing the rites for conversion or witnessing such rites, would be obliged to inform the District Magistrate of the conversion.

The Bill has provisions for the offence to be investigated by an officer of the rank of inspector of police or above.*


* The Congress Governments in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh had enacted similar Acts quite some time ago. But BJP Governments in U.P., Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi have not even given a thought to such a step. It was certainly brave on the part of a BJP MLA to defy the party veto in this context.

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