Friday, December 8, 2023

Conversion Controversy

The controversial Bill passed by the Karnataka legislative assembly provides for prohibition of unlawful conversion from one religion to another by various means. It has been strongly opposed by leaders of minority communities.

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The Karnataka cabinet recently introduced an ordinance to give effect to the controversial law against religious conversions. The state governor Thaawarchand Gehlot on May 17 gave his assent to the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Ordinance'(anti-conversion ordinance), following which the government notified it.

The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill was passed by the legislative assembly in December last year. However, it is pending for passage in the legislative council, where the ruling BJP is one short of majority.

“We had passed the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill (in the legislative assembly), due to certain reasons it was not passed in the legislative council. So, the cabinet today has decided to bring in an ordinance,” said Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister JC Madhuswamy.

Speaking to media after the cabinet meeting, he said: “Whatever is passed by the assembly will be in the ordinance. It will be introduced and passed in the council during the next session. When the House is not in session government can go in for ordinance so we have taken that route.”

During the passage of the Bill in the assembly, Home Minister Araga Jnanendra had said eight states have already passed or were implementing such a law, and Karnataka would become the ninth one to implement such a legislation. The BJP-ruled Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, among others, have enacted similar legislations.

The Bill that was passed by the legislative assembly provides for protection of right to freedom of religion and prohibition of unlawful conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means. It proposes an imprisonment from three to five years with a fine of Rs 25,000, while for violation of provisions with respect to minors, women, SC/ST, the offenders will face imprisonment from three to ten years and a fine of not less than Rs 50,000. The Bill also makes provisions for the accused to pay up to Rs five lakh as compensation to those who were made to convert, and with regards to cases of mass conversion there shall be a 3-10 year jail term and a fine of up to Rs one lakh.

It also states that any marriage which has happened for the sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice-versa by the man of one religion with the woman of another, either by converting himself before or after marriage or by converting the woman before or after marriage, shall be declared as null and void by the family court. The offense under this Bill is non-bailable and cognizable.

The Bill mandates that persons who wish to convert to another faith shall give a declaration in a prescribed format at least 30 days in advance to the district magistrate or the additional district magistrate specially authorised by the district magistrate in this regard of his residing district or place of birth within the state. Also the religious converter who performs the conversion shall give 30 days advance notice in a format to the district magistrate or the additional district magistrate.

Along with the Muslim community, the Bill was also opposed by Christian community leaders. Catholic and human rights groups in Karnataka have opposed the legislation, with Bengaluru Archbishop, Peter Machado, requesting Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai to hold back the ordinance and not give his approval. Catholic groups alleged that the ordinance was not only targeting the community, but also snatching the freedom of choice that people are entrusted by the Constitution of India.

Machado claimed that with the promulgation of the ordinance, fringe elements and groups will try to create problems for the members of Christian community. “It has been brought to my notice that the Karnataka cabinet has recommended to the governor of Karnataka to pass an ordinance to enforce the Protection of the Freedom of Religion Bill. This is sad and surely it will affect the harmonious relationship that we enjoy with members of all the communities in Karnataka,” he said.

“We cannot understand the sudden turn of events and what is there in the mind of the government. We are law abiding citizens and will surely put our trust in the government to protect our interests and concerns. We have no difficulty in the government taking action against any excesses or unlawful activities that are noticeable with concrete proofs,” he added.

The archbishop further said that in the right democratic tradition, the Christian community members appealed to the governor not to give assent to the ordinance, given the nature of the involvement of the community in the wider development of the state and in the matter of education, healthcare and social welfare.

When the government introduced the Bill in the legislative assembly in December, it was strongly opposed by the Congress and Janata Dal-Secular. Congress member DK Shivakumar had torn up the law in the assembly and said: “This law is against the Constitution and so we have to oppose it. There is an attempt to disturb peace in the state and divert public attention for political reasons. People respect our country because it is secular and peaceful. Here everyone is allowed to live peacefully. In such a situation, attempts are being made to disturb the atmosphere. Their focus is only on the Christians.”

But despite massive protests by the Opposition, the government has taken the ordinance route to give effect to the law against religious conversions. With this, the ordinance, which contained all the elements of the Bill, will now come into effect and likely to remain effective until the government passes the Bill in the legislative council, during the next legislature session.   

 —By Abhilash Singh and India Legal Bureau

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