Sunday, February 25, 2024

Conversion Conundrum

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Pleas by eight interfaith couples for protection of life were dismissed by the Allahabad High Court as their marriages were not in compliance with the Act. Pleas from other states regarding such laws are pending before the Supreme Court

While hearing a petition of an interfaith couple seeking adequate security, the Allahabad High Court held that it was mandatory to follow the relevant section of the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021.

The Act was enacted with the object: “… to provide for prohibition of unlawful conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means of by marriage and for the matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

Section 3 of the Act prohibits conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, coercion or allurement. Section 5 provides the punishment, which ranges from one to five years’ imprisonment. Where conversion is of a woman or minor or a person belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribes, the term ranges from five to 10 years.

The second provision to Section 5 provides that the punishment for mass conversion should not be less than three 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 a second or subsequent conviction for the same offence will entail a maximum of double the punishment provided for the first offence.

Section 6 renders a marriage performed for the sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice-versa as void. However, the proviso attached to the Section speaks of the applicability of provisions of Sections 8 and 9 as regards such marriages. Section 7 makes an offence under the Act to be cognizable, non-bailable and triable by the court of sessions.

Section 8 of the Act mandates that the person who desires to convert his religion must give a declaration at least 60 days in advance to the district magistrate (DM) or additional DM that the decision to convert was his own. The converter, who performs the conversion ceremony, has to give a month’s advance notice to the DM 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 if there is no advance notice given by the person seeking to convert and it ranges from six months to three years, along with a fine which shall not be less than Rs 10,000.

Section 9 deals with a post-declaration conversion. The converted person is required to send a declaration within 60 days of conversion to the DM of the place in which such a person resides ordinarily. The DM will exhibit a copy of the declaration on the notice board of the office till the date of confirmation. The declaration shall contain the requisite details (the particulars of the convert) such as date of birth, permanent address, the present place of residence, father’s/husband’s name, the religion to which the convert originally belonged and the religion to which he has converted, the date and place of conversion and nature of process gone through for conversion.

The converted individual will have to appear before the DM within 21 days of sending a declaration to establish his identity and confirm the contents of it. The DM will record the fact of declaration and confirmation in a register, and the certified copy will be given to the converted person. 

A single bench of Justice Kshitij Shailendra said that if a marriage between persons of different faiths is solemnised after the Act of 2021 came into force, as per Section 1 (3) of it, the parties have to ensure compliance of Sections 8 and 9. In such an event, conversion, if any, done in the past, may be a relevant fact during the course of inquiry conducted by the DM as per Sections 8 and 9. But in itself, it cannot be a substantive proof of a valid conversion so as to attach sanctity to a marriage performed after the Act, 2021 has come into force. Therefore, the concerned party to a proposed inter-faith/inter-religion marriage has to comply with the provisions of the Act.

Recently on January 16, the Allahabad High Court had refused to grant relief to interfaith couples seeking security. A single bench of Justice Saral Srivastava also rejected separate petitions of many petitioners from Moradabad and other districts. The couples had asked the family to stop interference in their marital life and for their safety, citing threat to their lives.

Out of the total eight petitions, five Muslim youth had married Hindu women and three Hindu youth had married Muslim wo­men without legally converting their religion.

Incidentally, petitions challenging the constitutional validity of anti-conversion laws by Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and UP are pending before the Supreme Court.

Last year, a division bench of Justices Anjani Kumar Mishra and Gajendra Kumar of the Allahabad High Court had dismissed a petition challenging an FIR lodged against 37 people accused in a case of religious conversion.

In 2021, the Allahabad High Court refused to grant protection to three interfaith couples, citing non-compliance of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2020. Justice Siddharth of the Court observed that the couples did not follow the mandatory requirement of submitting a declaration form before the DM 60 days prior to conversion.

In the same year, the Allahabad High Court held that marriage registrars cannot refuse to register marriages on the grounds that the couple had not obtained the approval of the district authority before converting, as mandated under the state’s anti-conversion law. The Court also clarified that “the consent of the family or the community or the clan or the State or Executive is not necessary, once the two adult individuals agree to enter into a wedlock which is lawful and legal. Their consent has to be piously given primacy, with grace and dignity.”

The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, 2020, was cleared by the state cabinet on November 24, 2020, following which it was approved and signed by Governor Anandiben Patel. The ordinance was passed days after the Yogi Adityanath government launched Mission Shakti, a campaign for the safety and security of women in the state. 

In 2019, the Uttar Pradesh State Law Commission under Justice Aditya Nath Mittal had compiled a report on unlawful religious conversion and proposed a draft Uttar Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019. Many state governments follow similar principles of anti-religious conversion, commonly described as conversion due to force or inducement or by fraudulent means. 

—By Shivam Sharma and India Legal Bureau

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