Thursday, February 02, 2006


Hindus and Sikhs in Britain should have the right to cremate their dead on funeral pyres at open-air ceremonies, a race relations group said yesterday. The Anglo-Asian Friendship Society said that a ban on the use of funeral pyres, dating back to 1930, unfairly penalised followers of both religions. It has approached a local authority to seek land for open-air cremations and is threatening to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The charity, which has 2,000 members, said that its proposal for pyres located at sites across the country, beginning with one near Newcastle upon Tyne, would meet all planning and environmental requirements. Davendar Ghai, the society's president, said that open-air cremations were considered essential to the process of reincarnation. "Reincarnation is a foundation of the faith and the older generation fully believe that, without these essential last rites, the soul languishes in restless torment," he said. Mr Ghai said that many Hindus and Sikhs were offended by having no alternative but to use the gas-powered furnaces of a conventional crematorium.

In a traditional Hindu funeral, the appropriate disposal of the ashes is vital. They are cooled and carefully collected so that there is no possibility of intermingling with other ashes. Mr Ghai said that many relatives chose the expensive option of taking the remains to India to avoid risking the "catastrophic consequences for the departed soul" of a failure to observe all the rituals.

Lawyers working for the society, which is based in Gosforth, near Newcastle, have prepared a case to be heard under the 1988 Human Rights Act. The documentation, claiming that the Government's refusal to allow funeral pyres makes it impossible for Hindus and Sikhs to practise their religion, was presented to Newcastle City Council this week. Andrew Bogan, the society's legal adviser, said that it was seeking an open-air cremation site between 10 and 12 miles outside the city centre and a long way from people's homes. "This is a longstanding requirement that is as old as the religion itself and it has been neglected far too long," he said.

A Newcastle council spokesman said: "We look forward to reading the Anglo-Asian Friendship Society's proposals."



Freedom of speech amendments from the Lords just squeak past the Commons

Tony Blair's authority was shaken by two surprise defeats last night that weakened his Bill to create the crime of inciting racial hatred. Key measures were lost by a majority of just one after he failed to stay for the crucial vote. In a humiliating blow to Mr Blair, who has a 65-seat Commons majority, 21 Labour rebels voted with Opposition MPs while at least 40 more were absent or abstained.....

The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was heavily watered down by 283 votes to 282 in the second most serious defeat for Mr Blair since the terror Bill last autumn. In an earlier vote, the Government was defeated on a technical measure by 288 votes to 278. To a chorus of "resign" from Conservative MPs, Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, told the Commons that he accepted its verdict and that the Bill would become law. But it was stripped of measures to outlaw "abusive and insulting" language and behaviour as well as the crime of "recklessness" in actions that incite religious hatred.

Had Mr Blair not left and the crucial vote been tied, the final decision would have fallen to the Speaker, who by convention would be expected to vote with the Government. Home Office sources put a brave face on events. An aide to Mr Clarke said: "I still think we can get prosecutions, but obviously it does raise the bar." The narrow defeat means that the Bill will become law with a series of amendments passed by the Lords designed to safeguard freedom of speech and meet the concerns of campaigners such as the comedian Rowan Atkinson.

The amendments restricted the new offence of inciting religious hatred to "threatening" words and behaviour rather than a wider definition covering insults and abuse. They also required the offence to be intentional and specified that proselytising, discussion, criticism, insult, abuse and ridicule of religion, belief or religious practice would not be an offence. Ministers had urged the Commons to back a government compromise.

Earlier, hundreds of protesters had gathered outside Parliament to complain about the legislation's impact on freedom of expression. Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney-General, said: "We are delighted with this outcome. The House of Commons has been willing to defy the Government, which is greatly to its credit. The Lords' amendments are infinitely better than the Government's proposals and protect far better the right to freedom of speech."

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