A petition challenging the constitutional validity of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003 and Rules of 2008 that came into force last April,has been placed before the Gujarat High Court.
A division bench of justices M S Shah and Akil Kureshi heard the matter on Wednesday and admitted the petition. They also issued a notice to the Advocate General of Gujarat to submit the state governments reply in the matter.
The petition was jointly filed by the Gujarat United Christian Forum for Human Rights; retired IAS officer P K Velera; Hanif Lakdawala,the representative of NGO Sanchetna; and civil rights activists Valjibhai Patel and Dwarikanath.
Advocates Girish Patel and Shalin Mehta contended that the most offensive part of the Act was the advance permission of the district magistrate to conduct conversion,or prior intimation to the district magistrate about individuals attending such programmes.
They said it was in violation of the Fundamental Right of Freedom of Conscience and Freedom to Profess,Practice and Propagate Religion under Article 25 of the Constitution of India. They said the Indian state,by its very secular nature,could not intervene in any case of free and voluntary conversion from one religion to another.
They further said the state could not regulate or control the free exercise of the freedom of conscience and religion by citing that public order may be disturbed by forcible or fraudulent conversion. They argued that any such Act would be beyond the legislative competence of the state.
They also pointed out the difference between the Gujarat Act,the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act of 1967 and the Madhya Pradesh Dharm Swatantrata Adhiniyam of 1968. They said the Orissa and MP acts merely provided for intimation of conversion to the district magistrate but nowhere insisted on taking prior permission of the district magistrate for the same.
The Gujarat Act made it compulsory to seek prior permission for wilful and voluntary conversions not only by those willing to convert,but for all those desirous of attending the conversion ceremony. They also pointed out the Supreme Courts judgment in 1977 that upheld the validity of the Orissa and MP acts.
The Act,by insisting upon intimation of ones own free conversion,attacks the right to privacy,as question of faith is purely a personal and private matter. By making ones conversion a matter of public notice and knowledge,the Act aims at facilitating and encouraging the religious fanatics to take law into their hands to prevent even free and voluntary conversion, said a counsel,adding that in the name of maintaining law and order,the Act would invite people to disturb it.
The advocates further contended that the Gujarat Act really wanted to prevent the Dalits and adivasis from converting,thereby forcing them to remain in the Hindu fold.