The Madhya Pradesh government on Saturday approved a proposal for a new law - the Religious Freedom Bill, 2020 which will curb forced religious conversions. The proposal for the draft bill was approved by senior leaders after a high-level meeting held on Saturday.
"Religious conversion after hiding one's own religion will attract 3-10 years of imprisonment & minimum Rs 50,000 fine. Mass religious conversion (2 or more people) will attract 5-10 years of imprisonment and a minimum fine of Rs 1 Lakh," the statement released by the chief minister's office read.
According to the provisions of the new bill conversion through marriage or by any fraudulent means carries a stiff penalty and a prison term upto 10 years. Mass religious conversions will also attract penal provisions. Marriages performed with the intent to convert will be declared null and void.
The district magistrate will need a month's notice for conversions that take place. Those accused of fraudulently converting minors or those from the marginalized community will face a jail term upto 10 years or Rs. 50,000 fine. "It is easy to mislead young girls with malicious intent. Later, their life becomes hell. Dharma Swatantrya (Religious Freedom) Bill 2020 is our beti bachao abhiyan," Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan told mediapersons after the Saturday meeting.
Attempts at a centralised anti-conversion law: History
According to a report in the US Library of Congress, a bid to ward off British missionaries spurred several Hindu princely states to enact laws restricting religious conversions in "an attempt to preserve Hindu religious identity".
The Parliament in independent India attempted and failed, for want of support, to introduce anti-conversion bills. The Indian Conversion (Regulation and Registration) Bill, 1954, sought to enforce "licensing of missionaries and the registration of conversion with government officials"; while the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill, 1960, was proposed to check conversions to non-Indian religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism). IN 1979, Freedom of Religion Bill sought "official curbs on inter-religious conversion."
Religion a state subject: Law Ministry
In 2015, the ruling dispensation—the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)—sought for a centralised anti-conversion bill. High-ranking members of the BJP including Home Minister Amit Shah, who was party president at the time, promised to introduce a nation-wide anti-conversion law in the parliament. However, the law ministry shot down the idea calling the move "not tenable", "purely a state subject" and going against the basic tenets of the constitution.
Freedom of Religion Act
When the Centre failed to bring in a unified law, many states took it on themselves to enact their own laws. The acts in the states are more or less similar. While the law does not actively ban conversion, it is illegal to convert by "force, allurement, inducement or fraud".
The common gist of the different anti-conversion laws is to check forceful or fraudulent conversions of communities and individuals by allurement or inducement; the authorities must be given prior notice of intent to convert; penalties and fines for forceful conversion, with stiffer sanctions in cases of women, minors and those belonging to the marginalised communities.
An analysis by the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre—an advocacy group that looks into policy issues—revealed that the language employed in the acts are "extraordinarily broad and vague", posing challenges to fundamental rights.
Uttar Pradesh became the ninth state to introduce laws on religious conversions and the third after Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, to have clauses specifically dealing with marriages. Six other states—Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand—have anti-conversion laws. Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan have passed legislation, but rules for enforcement have not yet been framed.
In 2006, Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act 2002 was passed, but, was later repealed following outrage from the minority communities.
BOOM looks at the anti-conversion laws in different states.
Odisha and Madhya Pradesh
Odisha, or Orissa as it was then known, and Madhya Pradesh were the first states to introduce and enact anti-conversion laws. In 1967, Odisha passed the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act. MP followed a year later. The Odisha act defined "conversion" as "renouncing one religion and adopting another."
In 1973, the Orissa High Court struck down the act upholding the rights guaranteed under Article 25 in the Indian Constitution. The division bench said that "the definition of the term 'inducement' is vague" and observed that "the State Legislature has no power to enact the impugned legislation which in pith and substance is a law relating to religion."
In 1977, a five-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court in Rev. Stainislaus vs State Of Madhya Pradesh set aside the Orissa HC order and restored the act. The top court was looking into a batch of pleas on the constitutional validity of the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrya Adhiniyam, 1968, and the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967. While the Madhya Pradesh HC had upheld the state's anti-conversion law, Orissa HC had called it unconstitutional.
The top court also ruled that the acts did "not regulate religion" and that the states were within its rights to legislate along those lines as they are "meant to avoid disturbances to the public order by prohibiting conversion from one religion to another in a manner reprehensible to the conscience of the community."
It further observed that Article (25) did "not grant right to convert other person to one's own religion but to transmit or spread one's religion by an exposition of its tenets." The verdict also said that the freedom of religion as enshrined in the Indian constitution was not limited to a particular religion but covered all alike which could "be properly enjoyed by a person if he exercises his right in a manner commensurate with the like freedom of persons following other religion".
The BJP government in MP recently announced its intent to introduce a new anti-conversion bill, which will supersede the old law, in its next assembly session to "check the rising cases of love jihad". The new bill—Dharma Swatantrya Bill (Freedom of Religion bill), 2020 is modelled on the state's 1968 law but will impose stiffer penalties and will also focus on prevention of conversion through marriage.
Himachal Pradesh adopted anti-conversion laws in 2007. 12 years later, in 2019, the state assembly passed the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2019—a stricter version of its earlier avatar. HP is one of the three states—after UP and Uttarakhand to have special provisions for marriages.
According to section 5 of the act, any marriage done for the sole purpose of conversion—before or after the marriage, will be declared null and void.
On November 28, hours after Uttar Pradesh Governor Anandiben Patel signed off on the new ordinance criminalizing 'forced religious conversions', Sharifnagar resident Tikram Rathod filed an FIR accusing a local youth Owais Ahmad of pressuring his daughter to convert to Islam. Two days later, on Monday at least two other FIRs were filed. One in Izatnagar, a little over 38 kilometres away, while the other in Mansurpur, more than 250 kilometres away.
In all three instances, the new ordinance—Uttar Pradesh Vidhi Virudh Dharma Samparivartan Pratishedh Adyadesh, 2020 (Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion Bill, 2020)—fast-tracked by the cabinet to combat 'Love Jihad' - a term that has become popular in recent years.
On December 2, the Lucknow police stopped an interfaith couple from getting married citing provisions from the new ordinance. The police acted on a complaint filed by several right wing groups including Hindu Yuva Vahini even though the couple and their family members had agreed to the union.
The new anti-conversion act criminalises "unlawful religious conversion" and "inter-faith marriages with the sole intention of changing a girl's religion". According to the provisions of the new law, unlawful conversions will attract a jail term of up to 10 years.
The new law came even as the Allahabad High Court on November 11 ruled the right to choose one's partner was a fundamental right and criticised its previous decisions as which had held that conversion of religion for the sole purpose to marry could not be said to be bonafide or valid as "not laying good law".
In 2019, Uttarakhand enacted The Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act and like Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, also deals with conversions in marriages. in 2017, the Uttarakhand high court had directed the state to frame laws akin to those in Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh to check religious conversions.
"...it needs to be mentioned that the Court has come across number of cases where the inter-religion marriages are being organised. However, in few instances, the conversion from one religion to another religion is a sham conversion only to facilitate the process of marriage," the high court had observed while passing its direction.
"The court, while making this suggestion, is well aware that it is not the role of the court to give suggestions to the state government to legislate, but due to fast changing social milieu, this suggestion is being made," Justice Rajiv Sharma had said.
Chhattisgarh, which was carved out of Madhya Pradesh, adopted and retained the provisions of the anti-conversion law under the Chhattisgarh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968. In 2006, the BJP government amended the bill to stipulate that "return in ancestor's original religion or his own original religion by any person shall not be construed as 'conversion'." However, none of the governors till 2014 gave their approval. According to this The Indian Express report, as of 2014, the Home Ministry was re-examining the amendment in which "ghar wapsi" (home coming) which converts Christians and Muslims to Hindu does not constitute as conversion.
In 2003, Gujarat enacted its anti-conversion law which is modelled on acts in other states. However, the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003 has one exception. Unlike other states where only a notice of the proposed conversion must be given, here a person who wishes to convert must take prior permission from the District Magistrate.
Three years after the law was enforced, the BJP state at the time sought to amend the act to redefine "conversion" to include exclude "inter-denomination conversion of the same religion." According to the amendment, Shia and Sunni were denominations of Islam; Catholic and Protestant as denominations under Christianity; Jainism and Buddhism under the Hindu faith. If a person converted within these "denominations" it was not considered to be a conversion. This amendment was subsequently withdrawn after the Jains and the Buddhists reacted badly to being grouped in a denomination.
In August 2017, the Jharkhand Assembly passed the Jharkhand Dharm Swatantra Bill, 2017 (Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Bill, 2017) and got the governor's nod a month later. According to the provisions of the act, the state government is allowed to make rules to carry out the act. In 2018, the government released a form which was required to be filled by a religious head if they intended to convert someone. The form also sought details from religious bodies on conversion-related activities.
However, in 2019, the BJP was voted out of power and the three-party alliance—Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM)-Congress-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)—won the majority in the assembly elections. Chief Minister Hemant Soren—who led the alliance government, had said that his government would review the anti-conversion laws brough in by his predecessor.
"Religion should not be used as a divisive force. It's an individual choice. We will definitely review it once the new Vidhan Sabha is formed," Soren had said.
Updated On: 2020-12-06T16:28:55+05:30