When Jayalalithaa Faced Tough Opposition Against Her Anti-Conversion Bill In 2002
Jayalalithaa had faced stiff opposition to her introduction of the anti-conversion bill back in 2002.
This is an account of the events that led Jayalalithaa to initially champion the bill and later hold back owing to political pressures.
31 October 2002 could have been like any other day in the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu. Twenty members, including the leader of opposition M Karunanidhi, were absent. A new bill was introduced in the assembly and it led to a vigorous debate. The Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leaders opposed it. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who had introduced the bill, defended it. When the bill was passed after an hour-long fierce debate, there were 140 members in favour and 73 in opposition.
The bill was the anti-conversion bill. It was not a blanket legal ban on conversions, nor was it aimed at any specific religion. It simply sought to prevent conversions that were effected by force or fraud.
The chief minister had chided the Congress for opposing the bill by quoting none other than Mahatma Gandhi. The grand old man had declared that if he had the power to legislate, he would ban all conversions, Jayalalithaa pointed out.
In the evening of that same day, a meeting of Hindu organisations was held at a beach in Chennai in which the pontiff of Kanchi, Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, defended the government’s decision.
Essentially, there were other calculations involved in introducing this bill too. Soon there would be elections for Parliament. After the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat, some friction had begun to develop in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-DMK relations. Just like the BJP-All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) alliance had done well in the parliamentary elections in 1998, subsequently, in 1999 the BJP-DMK alliance had done well in Tamil Nadu. So this should have given the AIADMK leader the confidence that the Hindu vote bank had at last substantially arisen in Tamil Nadu.
In the BJP itself, Advani seemed to be in an ascendancy, and Jayalalithaa always thought she was more in tune with Advani's wavelength than with Vajpayee’s. So it was now time to mend fences with the BJP. And what could have been a better way of doing it than announcing an anti-conversion law?
Apart from such political considerations, Jayalalithaa herself had overtly sided with the Hindutva cause earlier. In her characteristic way, she had quipped about the Ram Janmabhumi Temple, “If not here, where else? In Pakistan?” Even years after she parted ways with the BJP, she welcomed the Allahabad High Court judgement acknowledging the existence of the Ram temple and handing over the contentious land to the Hindus.
Even on the subject of a uniform civil code, she had made an unambiguous declaration in 2003: "A Uniform Civil Code is very necessary for the country. The AIADMK would certainly support a legislation in Parliament in this regard." So, there was definitely an element of personal conviction apart from the political considerations.
There is also a historical legacy for the AIADMK with respect to anti-conversion law. Soon after the Mandaikadu Hindu-Christian riots in 1982, the then M G Ramachandran (MGR) government appointed a commission under Justice Venugopal. Though Justice Venugopal was said to be a Dravidian movement sympathiser, he was shocked by the extent of hate literature and missionary propaganda in the district. There were even efforts to change the name 'Kanyakumari' to 'Kanni Mary' (Virgin Mary).
In 1986, the MGR government had agreed to the commission’s recommendation that an anti-conversion law similar to the one existing in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh be enacted in Tamil Nadu. So, in a way, the Jayalalithaa government only fulfilled a long-made commitment of her mentor’s. But she had underestimated the power of the Church and the evangelical organisations and overestimated the strength of the political Hindu forces in Tamil Nadu.
There were a series of meetings throughout Tamil Nadu, organised by various political and intellectual forums. The opposition was well-organised and functioned at various levels. Meetings of eminent intellectuals were periodically organised in Christian colleges and educational institutions. While veteran SC/ST leaders like Viswanathan Kakkan and Periyasamy supported the bill, the media put the spotlight on leaders like Thirumavalavan of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, who were virulently anti-Hindu and who opposed the bill.
The evangelical churches had been fighting among themselves. The Catholic Church had even initiated an internal commission to study the Pentecostal conversion of Catholics. The then Pope had described the Protestant missionaries at the time as 'wolves'. But all evangelical churches as well as the Catholic Church and the largest Protestant church diocese, the Church of South India, all came together. They were aligning with each other and creating a massive vote-bank-based retaliation.
The mainstream media, which almost solely occupied the media space at the time, launched a vehement attack through biased reporting. Not to forget, Jayalalithaa had also introduced a ban on the sacrifice of animals in temples. So a virulent campaign linking these two laws ensued. Jayalalithaa was being Brahminical and anti-minority, they said. Though the Vishva Hindu Parishad had opposed the bill banning animal sacrifice in temples, this was considered a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ploy to 'Aryanise' Tamil Nadu.
As parliamentary elections neared, the DMK parted ways with the BJP, who also aligned with the AIADMK. With Islamist political parties, Church-backed non-governmental organisations, Marxists, Dravidianists, Pattali Makkal Katchi all aligned on one side, the election was a washout. The AIADMK defended the bill with lamentations in the Christian areas. This writer heard at an AIADMK propaganda meeting a prominent local leader saying in an apologetic voice, “Please understand that not a single person has been persecuted through this law. It is just in papers. Nothing more.” But the Church would not allow even a symbolic gesture from a pagan head of a secular state. The BJP-AIADMK alliance could not win a single seat. The United Progressive Alliance won all the forty constituencies in Tamil Nadu.
With the myth of political Hindu unity in Tamil Nadu busted, and the power of minority vote-bank politics clearly proved, that was one occasion when the Iron Lady of Tamil Nadu would eat humble pie from the hands of the Church. An electorally humiliated Jayalalithaa announced on 21 May 2005, “Following representations from minorities, I had announced on May 13, 2004, that the law would be repealed and an ordinance was promulgated on May 18 the same year.” Later, she would turn her fury on the Hindu pontiff of Kanchi, getting him arrested at the dawn of Diwali and unleashing a massive attack of vendetta on the Mutt.
In Jayalalithaa's U-turn, there are lessons to be learned. Here, we had a chief minister who was convinced in principle of some of the core aspects of the Hindutva movement, and yet the sheer incompetence and complacency on the part of the Hindutva forces made her move to the other side – with cognitive dissonance taking its toll on the state’s Hindus for years to come.
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