- There was a long standing demand in Uttarakhand for strict action against forced conversions.
- Following this, the Uttarakhand government introduced the Uttarakhand Religion Freedom Amendment Bill in the Assembly.
- Since 2017, five states, all led by Bharatiya Janata Party governments, have either passed new anti-conversion laws or updated existing ones.
- The new versions of the laws put in place stricter punishments and newer grounds for restricting conversions, such as conversion “by marriage” – where a person who adopts another faith to enter into a marriage would be deemed to have been forcibly converted.
Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act:
- It amends the prevalent Freedom of religion Act of 2018 and imposes a fine of Rs. 50,000 on any person who tries to convert the other through “misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means.”
- It also makes it a cognisable and non-bailable offence with a minimum prison term of 3 years that can be extended up to 10 years.
- As per the new law, the convict will have to even pay Rs. 5 lakhs to the victim.
History of Conversion laws in India:
- The Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967 – It is the first such law in the country and prohibits conversion from one religion to the other by “force or inducement or by fraudulent means”.
- The Arunachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1978 (never enforced) – The law says that “no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet any such conversion”.
- Those converting and those performing the conversion need to send an intimation within a prescribed period to the DM, or may face a punishment of one year or with fine that go up to thousand rupees or both.
- Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003; Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill 2006 – The law prescribes punishment of three years for forced conversion, with a fine of up to Rs 50,000.
- In cases involving a woman, minor, Scheduled Caste (SC)/ Scheduled Tribe (ST), the fine can go up to one lakh rupees. Prior permission from the DM is required and it is a cognisable offence.
- Chhattisgarh Religion Freedom (Amendment) Act, 2006 –It provides a three-year jail term and penalty up to Rs.20,000 or both. The law makes it mandatory for a person who wants to convert to get approval 30 days in advance from the DM. The DM will have the authority to reject or accept the application after examining the case.
Challenges of conversion laws:
- Freedom of conscience – The petitioners argued that restrictions on conversion contravened their fundamental rights since Article 25(1) of the Constitution should include the right to convert under the word ‘propogation’.
- However, the court held that Article 25 does not give the right to convert but only “to transmit or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenets”.
- Judicial criticisms – In 1977, a five-judge upheld the constitutionality of India’s first two anti-conversion laws: the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967 and Madhya Pradesh’s MP Dharma Swatantrya Adhiniyam, 1968.
- But the verdict in this case, Stainislaus vs State of Madhya Pradesh, has been criticised by constitutional experts because the court held that this right does not include voluntary conversions.
- Burden of proving that the conversion was ‘lawful’ lies on the person who ‘caused’ the conversion. This provision ignores the opinion of those who converted and the focuses only on the “converter.
- Substance over form: It is also difficult to ascertain whether a religious conversion is truly conducted solely for the purpose of marriage.
- Watering down provisions – In 2021, both the Gujarat and Allahabad High Courts have watered down the provisions relating to inter-faith marriages in the anti-conversion laws of their states.
- Pending matters – The constitutional validity of the anti-conversion laws in at least four states – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh – has been pending before the Supreme Court since February 2021.
- Vagueness in laws: The UP ordinance law is criticised for the ambiguous terms used like “undue influence”, “coercion”, “allurement or marriage” for specifying the grounds for criminalising conversions.
- Human rights – Several petitions have been filed before several High Courts challenging anti-conversion laws.
- Some High Courts have ruled in favour of more checks during conversions and inter-faith marriages.
- In December 2020, the Uttarakhand High Court held that the notice to the district magistrate prior to conversion for marriage is compulsory.
- Courts have also regulated conversions – In 2017, in the absence of a law on the subject, the Rajasthan High Court laid down guidelines on conversions and inter-faith marriages
- The court said that anyone who wishes to convert should provide information to the district authorities before conversion and that a marriage can only be solemnised if adequate notice is given to the authorities.
- Adequate groundwork – Anti-conversion laws must be backed by a concrete study on the ground-realty of such forced conversions.
- Upholding diversity – It is the duty of the state to enable and facilitate inter-faith/inter-caste marriages – Allahabad HC ruling on Special Marriages Act is a step in the right direction
- Justice Swaminathan said the physical violence starts with psychological violence and psychological violence comes from the violence embedded in the propaganda.
- Hence, we need to be sensitive in matters of religion and conversion.
- Any challenge to conversion laws would require the Supreme Court to relook at its Stainislaus judgment while also taking the right to privacy judgment into account.
Source: The Hindu