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Religious conversion: Allahabad High Court dismisses plea challenging FIR against 37 persons

The Allahabad High Court dismissed a petition challenging an FIR lodged against 37 accused in a case of religious conversion.

The Division Bench of Justice Anjani Kumar Mishra and Justice Gajendra Kumar passed this order while hearing a petition filed by Jose Prakash George and 36 Others.

The writ petition sought quashing of the first information report dated 23.01.2023 giving rise to Case under Sections 420, 467, 468, 506, 120-B IPC & Section 3/5 (1) of UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, Police Station Kotwali, District Fatehpur.

The counsel of the petitioner contended that the incident regarding which the FIR has been lodged is of April 14, 2022.

Earlier in time, another FIR on almost identical allegations had been lodged on 15.04.2022 which gave rise to Case under Sections 153A, 420, 467, 468, and 506 IPC and Section 3/5 (1) of UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021.

The first informant in the case is one of the witnesses whose statement was recorded by the police under Section 161 CrPC on 15.04.2022 itself.

Even the accused in both the FIRs are the same barring one or two persons. Only the informant in both the cases is different. Both the cases allege mass religions conversion by fraud, coercion and allurement.

On the basis of above facts, the counsel for the petitioners contended that the FIR is barred by Section 154 and 158 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and also in view of the law laid down by the Apex Court in TT Anthony Vs State of Kerala, 2001, which view has been reiterated in various other cases referred to in the body of the writ petition.

Additional Advocate General Manish Goel appearing for the State submitted that the impugned FIR would not be hit by the ratio in the case of TT Antony (supra). Both the cases are different. The impugned first information report has been lodged by the victim, who was coerced into religious conversion by inducements as well.

It is also submitted that the allegations in the impugned FIR reveal that the offence and allegations are distinct from that in the FIR giving rise to the case.

He has next submitted that the first information report itself gives the reason for the delay in its lodgement. Initially, the first informant was under pressure and it was only after he emerged from it that he could muster courage to lodge the first information report. He has alleged in his first information report that threats were extended to him as also his family members.

It has also been submitted by Manish Goel that the instant first information report is not hit by the ratio in TT Antony’s because it is only any aggrieved person, his/ her parents, brother, sister, or any other person, who is related to him/ her by blood or marriage, who is competent to lodge the first information report where an offence under Section 3 of the Act is alleged.

The Court observed the only material difference in the two first information reports is that the first was lodged by an office bearer of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad while the impugned first information report has been lodged by one Virendra Kumar, who underwent religious conversion allegedly on account of fraud, misrepresentation, coercion and inducements. The issue therefore for consideration is whether on account of the aforenoted difference, the first information report impugned in this writ petition goes out of purview of the ratio in the TT Anthony case.

The offence alleged in both FIRs is one under Section 3 of the UP Prohibition of Religions Conversion Act, which prohibits conversion of religion as also its attempt by traced misrepresentation, force, undue influence, and/or allurement, as also its abatement and conspiracy.

Section 5 of the Act provides the punishment, where conversion is effected by use of undue influence, force, misrepresentation, coercion, allurement etc. The punishment ranges from 1 to 5 years imprisonment. Where conversion is of a women or a minor or a person belonging to the Scheduled Caste of Scheduled Tribes, the term ranges from 5 to 10 years.

Second proviso to Section 5 provides that the punishment for mass conversion to be not less than 3 years and can extend up to 10 years. Sub-section 2 provides for payment of appropriate compensation to the victim along with a fine. The maximum compensation payable is of Rs 5 lakh.

Sub-section 3 provides that second or subsequent conviction for the same offence will entail a maximum of double the punishment provided for the first offence.

Section 8 of the Act mandates a person seeking to convert his religion to furnish a declaration in the form prescribed in the Scheduled, 60 days prior to the conversion. The converter, who performs the conversion ceremony, has to give a months advance notice to the District Magistrate in the form prescribed in Schedule 2 of the Act. Sub-section 4 of Section 8 provides that in the absence of afore-enumerated notices, the religious conversion will be void.

Sub-section 5 provides the punishment where no advance notice is given by the person seeking to convert and it ranges from 6 months to 3 years along with fine which shall not be less than Rs 10,000 Section 7 makes an offence under the Act to be cognizable, non-bailable and triable by the Court of Sessions.

The impugned first information report apart from sections of the Indian Penal Code invokes also Section 3 / 5(1) of the Act.

The Court further observed in so far as the material allegations in the first information report are concerned, they pertain to the same mass conversion ceremony of the same date. Therefore, there is no substantial difference in so far as the allegations in the two FIRs are concerned and if this aspect alone is taken into account, the matter at hand is covered by the ratio in the case of TT Anthony. It is this provision, which has been relied upon by Manish Goel, learned Additional Advocate General. His argument therefore is that it is the second first information report, which is by the victim is in fact the competent first information report. Therefore, by implication therefore, it has been submitted that the first information report lodged by an office bearer of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is not a competent first information report and therefore, the impugned first information report is not contrary or is not barred by the judgement in the case of TT Anthony.

If the argument of Manish Goel is accepted, the first information report dated 15.04.2022 is manifestly incompetent.

The embargo under Section 4 as to who can lodge a first information report regarding an offence under Section 3 of the Act is absolute. The impugned first information report has been lodged by the person, who claims to be a victim of conversion obtained by mis-representation, coercion and allurement and as per Section 4(e) is the person competent to lodge the first information report.

Section 5(1), which has also been invoked only provides the punishment for an offence under Section 3 of the Act. Therefore, it has to be held that the first information report impugned in the instant writ petition is by a competent person and contains ingredients of a cognizable offence.

However, the words ” any aggrieved person” in our considered opinion is qualified by the subsequent categories and the words his, her parents, brother, sisters or blood relations by marriage and adoption included. Therefore, the words “any aggrieved person”, if taken by themselves are extremely wide. The scope of the said term is completely whittled down by subsequent categories and therefore, it has to be said that any aggrieved person would be a person but is personally aggrieved by his or her fraudulent conversion be it an individual or in a mass conversion ceremony. Any interpretation to the contrary would render the remainder of Section 4 after the words “any aggrieved person ” wholly redundant and also render the Section itself completely meaningless. Under the said circumstances, we are constrained to rule that the first information report dated 15.04.2022 was not lodged by a competent person.

Since, the first information report dated 15.04.2022 had not been lodged by a person competent to lodge it, it is of no consequence. For the same reason, the impugned first information report cannot be called a second first information report. It, therefore, cannot be said that there are two separate first information reports of the same incident. The case at hand therefore, is not covered by the ratio in TT Anthony (supra).

It has already been observed in the earlier part of the order that the allegations in the first information report impugned, contain ingredients of a cognizable offence. Therefore, also the impugned first information report is not liable to be quashed, the Court also observed while dismissing the petition.

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