Above: All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen staging a dharna in protest against alleged forcible conversion of muslims, at Aishbagh Eidgah in Lucknow on Friday/Photo: UNI
The Yogi Adityanath government is studying a report by the State Law Commission that recommends laws to check forced religious conversion in the state
By Govind Pant Raju
Ten states in the country have, as of now, laws to deal with forced conversion, but Uttar Pradesh is not one of them. But India’s largest and most populous state may soon become the 11th one as the BJP government headed by Yogi Adityanath is drafting a law that will no longer make it easy to con someone into religious conversion for any ulterior motives.
A 268-page report on the draft bill of the Uttar Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019, was recently submitted to Adityanath by the Uttar Pradesh State Law Commission. The chairman of the commission, Justice AN Mittal, and its secretary, Sapna Tripathi, handed over the report to Adityanath at their meeting on November 21 in Lucknow.
The law is being drafted to put a check on all kinds of forced religious conversion as it proposes to criminalise “forced conversions”. The report takes into account newspaper clippings related to recent forced conversions, anti-conversion laws of various states in India and neighbouring countries, recommendations of the Law Commission of India and extracts from various judgments of the Supreme Court as well as several High Courts.
The draft Bill aims “to provide freedom of religion by the prohibition of conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage”.
Some of the key suggestions in the report include making a provision for a person to submit a declaration of his religious conversion to the district magistrate a month in advance before his/her conversion along with a similar declaration from the religious authority (a pujari, maulvi or priest). It also recommends allowing the civil court to declare a marriage null and void if its primary purpose was conversion.
According to the report, the Law Commission considers existing legal provisions not strong enough to curb forced religious conversion and recommends a stronger law as in at least 10 states where anti-conversion statutes are already in place. Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Odisha, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are the 10 states where the laws already exist and while these statutes regulate religious conversion carried out by force or undue influence, there have been zero convictions so far.
The draft Bill allows any “aggrieved” person or their relations (parents, brothers, sisters, or any other person related to them by blood, marriage or adoption) to file a complaint of such forced conversion. Imprisonment for a term not less than one year but which may extend to five years along with fine has been recommended for the accused. This can also be raised to a minimum of two years with extension up to seven years if it is the case of conversion of a woman, minor or a person belonging to an SC/ST. It further lays the burden of proof on the person who allegedly caused the conversion.
In an exclusive interaction with India Legal, Justice Mittal stated that the objective of the recommendations of the Commission was to formalise religious conversion under the country’s legal provisions. One of its key objectives is to curb conversion performed in secrecy. He clarifies that the recommendations he has submitted in his report to the state government are very different from the 10 states where such laws are already in place.
According to these provisions, after conversion the concerned person is expected to appear before the district magistrate within 21 days to personally identify himself and confirm the content of the earlier declaration of conversion. The religious leader who has done the conversion will also have to be present himself. The proselytisers will also have to give a declaration in this regard to the district magistrate’s office within 21 days of the conversion. He told India Legal that these recommendations are also aimed at preventing misuse of conversions while providing for the cancellation of conversions done only for marriage by giving an affidavit in the family court. While the draft Bill seeks to regulate and criminalise religious conversion, it would not affect an individual seeking to “reconvert” to Hinduism through a “Ghar Vapsi” programme.
Previously, the State Law Commission had submitted eight reports about the different laws in the state to the government. These include recommendations to repeal around 1,166 and 256 old state laws to prevent mob lynching, to prevent grading of land, to give family property rights to transgenders and to revamp the rent control law.
However, the draft Bill has its share of detractors. Sajan K George, president of GCIC (Global Council of Indian Christians), has condemned the decision as the proposed law violates the constitutional guarantees established by Article 21. According to the report, there is a large number of forced conversions in Uttar Pradesh.
According to George, Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of attacks against Christians with false reports of forced conversion. Any social activity can be reported as an attempt at coercion or fraudulent conversion. He believes that a law like this is liable to be misused by right-wing fundamentalist groups. In states where anti-conversion laws are currently enacted, radical groups have falsely accused Christian evangelists of forcibly converting individuals to Christianity, leading to harassment and assaults which are overlooked by local police because of political pulls and pressures.
All eyes are now on the Adityanath government and the steps it takes to implement, if at all, the proposals by the State Law Commission.