The Madhya Pradesh High Court has directed the state government not to take any coercive action against adult citizens under the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, for not informing the District Magistrate before converting their religion.
The Bench of Justice Sujoy Paul and Justice Prakash Chandra Gupta passed the order on a bunch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Section 10 of the 2021 Act, which required a person desiring to convert religion to give declaration in this regard to the District Magistrate 60 days in advance.
Terming Section 10 of the Act as prima facie unconstitutional, the High Court directed the state government to file reply over the matter within three weeks.
The petitioners prayed for striking down Sections 2(a), 2(b), 2(c), 2(d), 2(e), 2(i), 3 (Prohibition of conversion from one religion to another), 4 (Complaint against the conversion of religion), 5 (Punishment for contravention of Section 3), 6 (any marriage performed in contravention of Section 3 shall be deemed null and void.), 10 (Declaration before conversion of religion) and 12 (Burden of Proof) of the Act.
Terming the 2021 Act as unconstitutional, the petitioners contended that it gave unbridled and arbitrary powers to the authorities to prosecute citizens and interfered with the fundamental right of citizens to practice a religion and marry a person of their choice, irrespective of caste and religion of their spouse.
As per the pleas, the Act could further disturb the harmony of the society. They said the disclosure of religion or intention to change the religion, as made mandatory under Section 10 of the Act, may rather lead to communal tension and may endanger the life or limb of the convertee.
On the other hand, the Counsel representing the state argued that the petitioners were claiming a blanket interim relief, which could not be granted and if granted, would amount to giving them final relief.
Taking into account various judgements of the Supreme Court, the High Court observed that marriage, sexual orientation and choice in relation to these aspects were in the realm of the right to privacy and had a direct relation with the dignity of the individual.
The High Court further took into consideration the verdict of the Himachal Pradesh High Court on a petition challenging the constitutional validity of the HP Freedom of Religion Act, 2006, which also required the citizens to inform the authorities about their wish to change their religion.
The High Court of Madhya Pradesh noted that the Constitutional right to the freedom of religion under Article 25 has implicit within it the ability to choose a faith and the freedom to express or not express those choices to the world.
Prima facie, a strong case had been made out by the petitioners for the grant of interim protection in relation to the marriage of two adult citizens of their volition and against any coercive action for violation of Section 10 of the Act, it noted and directed the state not to prosecute adult citizens for converting religion willfully.