Indian Governor Seeks to Suppress Religious Freedom

Bhopal: The Governor of Madhya Pradesh in India agreed on 31 July to forward a controversial bill, already approved by the Madhya state Assembly, to the President of India for constitutional review and approval before signing it into law.

The bill is titled the "M.P. Freedom of Religion Amendment Bill 2013". But despite its name, its purpose is to require individuals who wished to change or disaffiliate from any religion in the state to notify the District Magistrate prior to the change. It also requires religious leaders to get permission from the District Magistrate before administering or taking part in any religious ceremony. The bill provided penalties of significant fines and even a jail term of up to four years for anyone who failed to adhere to the law.

Having the Governor send the bill to the President of India prior to signing was a victory for regional civil rights groups and minority religious groups who had been organizing state-wide protests for several weeks to lobby the Governor to take this action.  These groups saw the bill as limiting and restricting the ability of individuals to join their communities and reinforcing the power and control of the majority Hindu community over individuals' exercise of religious freedom. The bill was supported by local Hindu leaders and representatives in the state Assembly.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in India's 1947 constitution and is considered a foundational principle of the State. Yet India is one of the most diverse religious countries in the world, having been the birthplace of four world religions: Hinduism; Jainism; Buddhism; and Sikhism.  The country also has large MuslimSikhChristian and Zoroastrian populations, with Islam being the largest minority religion in India.  Despite the Constitutional guarantee, many regions and localities in the country promote and privilege their local majority religion and have passed anti-conversion laws.  Madhya Pradesh passed a similar law in 2006 requiring one month's notice to the government before one could convert to another religion. But that law was struck down by the Solicitor General of India as unconstitutional.

The groups pressuring Governor Ram Naresh Yadav to forward the bill to the President of India expect a similar ruling for this bill.