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Big-screen infomercial in India discourages conversions

NEW DELHI, India (BP)–A public service infomercial questioning religious conversions has begun showing in Vadodara, India, a city of 1.4 million people in the state of Gujarat, Compass Direct has reported.

Gujarat, on India’s border with Pakistan, has a long history of religious strife by Hindu extremists targeting Christians and Muslims.

The president of the Indian Association of Producers, Artists and Technicians of Short Films and Television Programs, Devendra Khandelwal, said the public service-type short film was made to “educate” cinema audiences about Gujarat’s Freedom of Religion Act of 2003, Compass reported. The law prohibits conversion “by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means.”

Compass quoted Khandelwal, who also is the chief executive officer of the company that produced the infomercial, Indian Infotainment Media Corporation (IIMC) of Mumbai, as saying he wants to convey “that conversion from one religion to another, either by force or fraud, is illegal and one can be punished.”

On June 30, Compass reported, the Gujarat High Court rejected a petition lodged in 2003 by the All India Christian Council and a Buddhist organization, the Buddha Gaya Mahabodhi Vihar, which challenged the anti-conversion law’s constitutionality. The court ruled that the petition was premature since the law had not yet been implemented.

Because the Gujarat state government has yet to bring the law into effect, “the screening of the film is totally unlawful, and it is misguiding the people of Gujarat,” Samson Christian, joint secretary of the Christian council, told Compass.

Khandelwal, meanwhile, said IIMC has agreements with some 600 theaters throughout India to screen such films, Compass noted in its July 20 report.

“I don’t understand why people are making such a fuss when [the film] is just repeating what the law says,” Khandelwal also said.

As described by Compass, the act stipulates that would-be converts must obtain permission from district officials before they convert. Priests or religious officials also must contact district authorities before a conversion takes place. Failure to comply with these requirements can lead to imprisonment for up to four years and a maximum fine of 100,000 rupees ($2,294).

Compass described the anti-conversion infomercial as beginning with a scene showing two dogs fighting and a voice-over saying, “You cannot change their nature.”

In the next scene, a cow grazes quietly in a green field while the voice says, “You cannot make this cow a non-vegetarian.”

The screen then goes black, and the voice says, “So why attempt to change someone’s religion?”

The infomercial concludes with the text of the 2003 Gujarat law.

Cinema staff in Vadodara said Khandelwal’s company gave them the infomercial for free. All Indian cinemas are required to show documentary films before they screen full-length movies, but the requirement is largely ignored. When a short film is shown, the producer earns 1 percent of the earnings from cinema attendance.

Four other Indian states have passed laws to combat “unethical” or “forced” conversions. Madhya Pradesh passed the first definitive anti-conversion law in 1966; Orissa in 1967; Arunachal Pradesh in 1978; and Tamil Nadu in October 2002.

Meanwhile in Washington, D.C., the Institute on Religion and Public Policy has criticized the plans of a Hindu extremist group in the Indian state of Orissa for its planned distribution of anti-Christian booklets.

The nonprofit interreligious institute cited the Hindu extremist group Dara Sena and noted that it is “dedicated to the promotion of convicted murderer Dara Singh…. Dara Singh was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison for murdering missionary Graham Staines and his two sons by burning them alive.”

“Dara Singh and the Dara Sena are violent thugs seeking to intimidate growing non-Hindu populations in Orissa,” said Joseph K. Grieboski, the institute’s president. “Rather than protect Hinduism -– their stated objective — they have harmed and embarrassed the international Hindu community by promoting violence and intolerance.”

The institute’s news release added that Dara Singh “has repeatedly stated that he wishes to run for public office in Orissa despite a law prohibiting convicted criminals from holding public office. His followers in the Dara Sena hold Singh as a godlike figure and a leader in the fight to protect Hinduism against ‘foreign’ religions such as Christianity and Islam.”

The institute credited the Superintendent of Police in Orissa’s Mayurbhanj District, where Singh’s prison is located, for publicly stating that the police will arrest anyone caught distributing anti-Christian publications.

“We encourage the government in Orissa to uphold [the] role of law and fundamental rights,” Grieboski said, “and to combat the atmosphere of intolerance and religious-based violence espoused by groups like the Dara Sena.”
Compiled by Art Toalston. Material from Compass Direct, a news service based in Santa Ana, Calif., focusing on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith, is used by permission.

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