Monday, October 21, 2002

Zero Convertibility

The conversion ordinance brings Jaya closer to the Sangh, while enabling her to settle a few scores


After chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram got governor P.S. Rammohan Rao to sign on Ordinance No. 9 of 2002 on the night of October 5, the question being asked in Tamil Nadu is what is it that got the AIADMK chief so worked up about conversions? Was it a spurt in the number of Dalits shifting to Christianity and Islam? Or was it her proximity to the Sangh that made her go in for an ordinance to warm the cockles of the saffron brigade?

That the proposed law is stringent is an understatement. The Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversions Ordinance prohibits "conversion from one (religion) to another by use of force or allurement or fraudulent means". It says a person who converts using allurement or fraudulent means shall be subjected to three years imprisonment and Rs 50,000 fine. In case the convert is a Scheduled Caste (SC), woman or minor, the term would be four years and the fine Rs 1 lakh. Whoever participates in such a conversion has to inform the local magistrate within a stipulated period.

The ordinance was pushed through, even though the assembly session was only 20 days away. One reason being cited in the AIADMK circles is that Tamil Nadu has seen a sharp rise in the conversion of Dalits and women to Christianity and Islam in the past two years. Last month in Madurai, 200 Dalits embraced Christianity and in several villages Dalits have been embracing, or threatening to embrace, Islam (see box).

While Christian and Islamic outfits seem obvious targets of such a law, what could've also precipitated the ordinance was the October 3, 2002, order of a two-judge bench of the Madras High Court. Chief Justice B. Subhashan Reddy and Justice K. Govindarajan stayed a letter dated September 19, 2000, of the Karunanidhi government, according to which a person born to Christian converts, on reconversion to Hinduism, shall not be eligible for an SC certificate.

The stay order was passed in pursuance of a petition filed by I. Ilangovan of Vellore. His plea was that a five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court had observed in 1976 that it is open to such a person to become a member of the scheduled caste to which his parents originally belonged. The only condition, imposed in order to weed out fraudulent cases, was that on reconversion the caste should admit him or her.

The DMK regime had issued the letter as an administrative response to the large number of 'reconversions' happening for the sake of reservation benefits. That the AIADMK was using this for other ends was clearone unwitting political victim of the letter was Ashok Kumar, the principal sessions judge who admonished cops about the manner of M. Karunanidhi's arrest on June 30, 2001. He had famously asked them: "Is your heart made of mud?" Kumar was born a Dalit Christian who converted to Hinduism and availed of reservation benefits during education and employment. Currently, a case is under way against him where it's claimed, based on the September 2000 order, that his scheduled caste certificate is invalid.

"After the high court's stay on the government letter, Ashok Kumar and thousands like him can breathe easy," says Ilangovan, himself a potential victim of the letter. But the petitioner's happiness was shortlived. Within two days of the stay order, the government came out with the ordinance that has the potential to not just prohibit the conversion of Dalit Christians to Hinduism, but also prohibit all "forced conversions" to Islam, Christianity or Buddhism. The ordinance is a double-edged swordit pleases the Sangh by clamping down on conversions from the Hindu fold on the one hand, and can be used selectively, on the other, against irritants like judge Ashok Kumar.

The ordinance, however, isn't exceptional. Similar laws are already in place in Orissa (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968) and Arunachal Pradesh (1977).These laws have survived being challenged for violating Article 25 that ensures freedom to propagate religion. Efforts at similar legislation at the Centre were made twice. In December 1978, the Jana Sangh's Om Prakash Tyagi introduced the Bill on Freedom of Religion in the Lok Sabha; and in July 2001 Shiv Sena MP Anant Geethe moved the Prohibition on Religious Conversion Bill. Both the private member bills fell through.

However, an anti-conversion law has always been high on the rss agenda. Only last month, sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan wrote on the need for an anti-conversion legislation in Panchajanya. With her ordinance, Jayalalitha has won admirers in the rss. The 'Annadaanam' (free lunch) scheme and spiritual classes in over 150 Hindu temples, a marriage mela for Hindus, her refusal to join other CMs in condemning Narendra Modi for Gujarat, her support for pota, and most recently, her raking up of Sonia Gandhi's Italian origins, have won Jayalalitha the admiration of hardcore Sanghis.

VHP leader Ashok Singhal hailed the ordinance as a "bold step and an eye-opener for other states". Kanchi Shankaracharya Jayendra Saraswati is enthused and wants a similar law covering the entire country. Last year, Tamil Nadu's Hindu Munnani had passed a resolution at their annual conference demanding such a law.

The ordinance also comes at a time when Jayalalitha's future is to be decided by a Supreme Court bench hearing the TANSI cases. The point is will it redeem her?

Source: Outlook, October 21, 2002


Post a Comment

<< Home