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Constitutional controls check radical Hindutva, says U.S diplomat

Katyayani Murti

CHENNAI: Hindu nationalism in India is kept in check by the workings of the constitutional democracy, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks.

Commenting on a controversy surrounding the 2006 Rajasthan Dharma Swatantrya Act, an anti-conversion legislation, Geoff Pyatt, Political Counselor in the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, said that “the checks and balances built into the Indian Constitution have so far successfully blunted this piece of anti-conversion legislation” ( 64917: confidential, dated May 22, 2006).

The bill prohibited conversion from one's ancestral religion to another, allegedly only when conversion was by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means — though the opponents of the bill contested this. But it did not have a similar bar when it came to re-conversion to one's original religion. This led critics to argue that the provisions of the bill sought to target non-Hindu religions.

At the time the cable was written, All India Catholic Council secretary general John Dayal called the bill's “eventual passage still ‘up in the air',” according to the cable. And subsequent developments proved him right.

Passed by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in an Assembly session devoid of members of the Opposition who boycotted the proceedings, the bill was returned un-signed by Rajasthan Governor Pratibha Patil, “based on the judgment that parts of the bill may be unconstitutional,” the cable says.

The Governor returned the bill to the State Cabinet “with a recommendation that it be sent to President [A.P.J. Abdul] Kalam.”

The Cabinet returned the bill without any amendments to the Governor, explaining what it saw as the constitutionality of the bill, and arguing that her refusal to sign the bill was unconstitutional. The Governor held on to the proposed legislation for a year before forwarding it to President Kalam, who declined to approve it. This was as expected by the Rajasthani media, which had “predicted that the bill will be referred to President Kalam, who will choose to send it back to the State Assembly,” according to the cable.

“This episode demonstrates that an active civil society, even when representing a tiny percentage of the population (Christians make up just over one tenth of one percent of Rajasthan's population), can influence policy,” Mr. Pyatt writes in the cable.

The bill's failure was “a triumph of the democratic and secular values enshrined in our Constitution,” the cable quotes Mr. Dayal as saying in a statement to the press addressed to the President.

Nonetheless, in 2008, after Pratibha Patil become the President, a revised version of the bill was passed in Rajasthan.

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.')

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