In a shocking statement, the Minister of State for Forests and Tribal Development in the Gujarat government, Ramanlal Patkar, reportedly made a controversial remark that Hindu tribals who converted to another religion will not be entitled for the welfare schemes of the state government as per an amendment to the law.
“Hindu tribals who converted to another religion will not be able to claim benefits of any of the 200-odd welfare schemes of the state government,” Patkar reportedly said. As an explanation to this statement, Patkar told Times of India “...By the new amendment, for the protection of tribal rights... the act was passed by the state assembly recently... Under the new law, non-tribals cannot claim rights as tribals under various government schemes. If they are Christian and following the Christian religion there is nothing wrong in that but one cannot claim to be a tribal and follow Christianity. Our effort is to prevent conversions by missionaries in the name of curing their diseases.”
“Under the new law, we have made rules that deputy collectors will issue certificates to tribals only if they are following Hindu tribal practices, which they are following for ages. If they have converted, they will not get benefits of any of the 211 schemes. Under the new rules, deputy collectors have to scrutinise,” he added.
However, the statement has invited much wider criticism against the ministers stand and activists have questioned the stand.
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“This is absurd. The Constitution has promised us rights, it is not a favour given to us by upper caste people,” CK Janu, a known tribal activist from Kerala took to twitter to make her comment on the statement.
“Tribals are protected under our Constitution as an ethnic minority and not as a religious minority. The minister should understand that even if a tribal changes his religion 10 times over, it will not change his ethnicity,” linguist and expert on tribal cultural heritage Ganesh Devy made it clear how the BJP-minister’s statement stands against the rights of tribals.
In fact, Patkar’s senior in the government, cabinet minister for forests and tribal development Ganpat Vasava has also denied the claims of Patkar saying that the state government has not made such law.
“The Constitution allows tribals to follow any religion. They cannot be denied any rights under any law. Patkar seems to have some misunderstanding. The state government has not made any such law. The tribals certificate verification law is only to prevent misuse of tribal certificates by non-tribals to get government jobs.”
Though the cabinet minister has dismissed Patkar’s statement on amendment in law, the Right-wing forces in the state have always been trying to make the conversion issue active citing the anti-conversion law. The Gujarat government in 2003, introduced a law- Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act- to regulate religious conversions.
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In December 2014, Vishwa Hindu Parishad led a mass conversion from Christianity to Hinduism. More than 200 Christian tribals had been converted to Hinduism in that ceremony. During that ceremony, even one VHP leader claimed that they re-converted 225 people from Christian community and took them back to Hinduism. All those conversions were the part of the controversial ‘ghar-wapsi’ campaign. The ghar-wapsi campaign had been conducted not only in Gujarat, also in various parts of the country.
However, it is interesting to look the figures of people who have applied for religious conversion in the state for the past five years. Earlier this year, the Gujarat Assembly was informed that 93.5% of people who have applied for the conversion are Hindus. During the time period, a total of 1,766 persons had applied for religious conversion approvals from district authorities under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act. Of these, 1,652 were Hindus, 71 Muslims, 42 Christian and one Sikh.