DELHI, India (BP)–Barely a week after India’s Congress Party defeated the previous pro-Hindu government in national elections, an official of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu has announced the repeal of the state anti-conversion law, Compass Direct news service reported May 25.
Chief Minister Selvi J. Jayalalithaa made the announcement May 18 in a five-page statement, noting, “I have ordered that the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act 2002 be repealed at once.”
Jayalalithaa heads the local branch of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazakham party (AIADMK), which was soundly defeated in the general elections. While she maintains her current position as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister until assembly elections in 2006, opposition members who won 35 of the 39 local seats in Tamil Nadu have called for her resignation, according to Compass Direct.
The Tamil Nadu anti-conversion law was enacted on Oct. 5, 2002, despite large-scale protests by the Christian minority and opposition parties.
It contained loose definitions and required all conversions to be registered with the state government. Without proper registration, both “converter” and “converted” could be jailed and fined.
Christians, who comprise approximately 6 percent of Tamil Nadu’s population, contend that the law was passed with the intent to harass religious minorities and restrict missionary work in the state.
Defending her original decision to enact the law, Jayalalithaa said in her statement, “It was only with the good intention of further promoting religious harmony among all religions that my government enacted the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act.”
She also claimed that her state government had “always been the strongest champion of the rights and welfare of every minority community, be it Christians, Muslims or others.
“This act was never intended to be used against the minorities. However, as leaders of some minority communities have requested withdrawal of this law, I have ordered that it be repealed at once.”
Hindu nationalists in the state have condemned Jayalalithaa’s move. R. Ramagopalan, who leads the Hindu Munnani organization that supported enactment of the law, labeled the decision “saddening and painful.” He called on citizens to peacefully oppose the withdrawal of the law, and he encouraged religious leaders to join hands and take further steps to prevent “unethical” conversions.
Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, told Compass Direct, “This is an answer to prayers offered by Christians everywhere. We are happy [Jayalalithaa] is moving away from Hindutva.
“This decision is a result of the fact that not only Christians but the whole state, including opposition parties, revolted against the anti-conversion law,” Howell added. “It could be a pointer that minorities can, with the political parties, lobby for the repeal of similar acts in other states as well.”
John Dayal, general secretary of the All India Christian Council, agreed that the move raised hopes for further legislative change. “It is now clear that Jayalalithaa enacted the law not because there was a threat of large-scale forced or fraudulent conversions, but to please her allies in the Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] movement,” Dayal said.
“We are shortly going to demand politically that the states of Orissa, Arunachal, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat repeal similar legislation,” he said. “We are also considering approaching the new central government to enact central legislation which will bar any state from enacting future laws that curb freedom of faith or in any way erode constitutional guarantees to the minorities.”
Babu Joseph, speaking for the Catholics Bishops’ Conference of India, said, “Ms. Jayalalithaa’s largesse seems, first of all, a move to control the damage suffered by her and her party and, secondly, to win the people back into her fold.
“However, the public today [is] much more discerning, and therefore her last-minute attempts may not cut much ice with them.”
Jayalalithaa also reversed several other rulings made during the past three years, which the opposition had tagged as “anti-people” policies.
Vishal Arora is a writer with Compass Direct. Copyright 2004. Compass Direct is a news service based in Santa Ana, Calif., focusing on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.