The buzz was around for a few months that Karnataka is set to pass an anti-conversion law in line with other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled states which already have such a law in place. The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 was tabled on December 21 by Karnataka home minister Araga Jnanendra, and soon after it was torn to pieces by Karnataka Congress president DK Shivakumar on the floor of the house! The bill was approved by the state Cabinet a day prior to its introduction in the State Assembly.
Precursor to the bill
Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai had said in October that the “anti-religious conversion laws” that are already in place in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat “will be studied to formulate a strong legislation in Karnataka.” He said, “A strong law will be brought into effect soon.” The state has a stringent anti-cow slaughter ban in place since February, 2021.
What preceded the discourse was a survey of churches undertaken by Karnataka’s legislative committee on backward classes and minority welfare. Records of the backward classes and minorities affairs, home, revenue and law departments, show that there “are about 1,790 churches in the state,” and the survey was to be conducted to find out how many of them are “illegal”. The committee had claimed that there have been “36 forced conversions cases” registered in the state in the past few months.
Amidst these discussions at the governance level, right-wing vigilante mobs had gotten a free hand in the state and even got an impetus to brazenly launch attacks on Christian places of worship and to oppose the faith in every way possible.
Right-wing mobs stormed into churches and chanted Hindu slogans. A proposal to name a park inside the St Aloysius (autonomous) College campus in Mangaluru ‘angered’ the right-wing so much that they created a major hate campaign that forced the college to call off the event. In mid-December, a group of right wing miscreants set Christian religious books ablaze in Kolar, while in Belagavi, a man entered a church armed with a machete. In Belur, Hassan district, Karnataka, a group of men claiming to be members of the Bajrang Dal disrupted worship at a Christian prayer hall,.
What’s on the table?
The Bill seeks to protect the right to freedom of religion, and prohibits unlawful conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means.
The Bill then goes on to define these terms such as allurement, Coercion, force, fraudulent, undue influence and so on. The Act also defines “mass conversion” as an incident where two or more persons are converted and “conversion” itself is defined as “renouncing one’s own religion and adopting another religion”.
Naturally, it prohibits religious conversion, under section 3, by “misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by any of these means or by promise of marriage.” The Bill does not consider ‘ghar wapsi’ or reconversion to immediate previous religion as conversion at all. This is in line with the Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand laws. The HP Act uses the words “parent religion”, the UP ordinance uses the word “immediate previous religion” and the Uttarakhand Act uses the word “ancestral religion”.
Who can complain: Any person related to the converted person by blood, marriage or adoption or in any form associated or colleague can file a complaint against such conversion (section 4).
Punishment: Any person who commits conversion by the illegal means mentioned above in section 3 can be imprisoned for up to 3 to 5 years and a fine of Rs. 25,000. If the same offence is in respect of a minor or a person of unsound mind or a woman or a person belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe then the maximum term of imprisonment increases to 10 years and minimum is 3 years and the fine increases to Rs. 50,000.
It is pertinent to note that the minimum punishment under this Bill is the highest among all other anti-conversion laws, where the same is 1 year. Also the maximum punishment for contravention in respect of minors etc., is in line with the UP and MP laws, which is 10 years. (section 5)
Every offence under the Bill is cognisable and non-bailable. (section 7)
Mass conversion: The Bill also punishes mass conversion with minimum 3 years imprisonment and maximum 10 years with a fine of Rs. 1 lakh! The fine amount is inline with the MP law and the maximum punishment is in line with UP and MP laws. (section 5)
Compensation: The court is also mandated to provide compensation to the victim from the accused, up to Rs. 5 lakh which is to be in addition to the fine imposed as punishment. No other law has such a provision for compensation except for the UP law. (section 5)
Repeat offender: A repeat offender is to be imprisoned for at least 5 years and a fine of Rs. 2 lakhs. While the laws of other states do not mention the fine amount, the punishment under the UP law cannot exceed double the punishment of that offence and under MP law the upper limit is 10 years. (section 5)
Sole purpose of marriage: The bill states that any “Any marriage which has happened with sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice-versa by the man of one religion with the woman of another religion, 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 concerned court or Family court ((section 6)
This is completely congruent with the UP, HP and Uttarakhand laws which have the same provision.
Notice before conversion: A notice of conversion is required to be given 30 days prior to the District Magistrate by the convertor as well as the person who wishes to get converted. Such notice will then be displayed publicly on the notice board of the office of the District Magistrate and in the office of the Tahsildar calling for objections. If conversion is done without such conversion, it is considered illegal and void. (section 8)
Objection to conversion: If any objections are received to such conversion, the DM is required to conduct an inquiry through officials of Revenue or Social Welfare Department with regard to genuine intention, purpose and cause of the proposed conversion. (section 8)
Notice after conversion: The converted person is also required to give notice within 30 days of conversion. If no objections were called for prior to conversion then the DM will call for objections. (section 9)
Declaration of conversion: The declaration is to contain “the particulars of the converted person such as date of birth, permanent address, the present place of residence, Father’s/husband’s name, the religion to which the converted person originally belonged and the religion to which he has converted, the date and place of conversion and nature of process gone through for conversion along with a copy of the identity card or the Aadhar card.”
While sub-section 2 states, “District Magistrate shall notify religious conversion on the notice board”, since the language is unclear, by all means the DM could display on the notice board the declaration given by the converted person where all the personal details are mentioned which not only invades the privacy but also poses a threat to the life and property of such person. (section 9)
The converted person is also required to be present before the DM within 21 days of the declaration to establish his identity and confirm the contents of the declaration.
If an objection is received, a similar procedure is followed and if not, the conversion is recorded in a register and an official notification is to be issued and ‘concerned authority’ is intimated.
Concerned authority: The concerned authority who is to be informed of the factum of conversion includes the person’s “employer, officials of the revenue department, social welfare department, backward classes welfare department, minority welfare department and other concerned department, urban and rural local bodies, Principals or Head Masters of the Educational Institutions, etc.” (section 9)
Burden of proof: The burden of proof that the conversion was not carried out illegally lies on the person who has caused the conversion and on the abettor who aids or abets such conversion. This provision is in line with the UP law.
More stringent than ever
The Bill is more stringent than the prevalent anti-conversion laws in that it has the highest minimum punishment prescribed for the offences under the proposed law, which is 3 years, while others have minimum punishment of 1 year or more.
The punishment for mass conversion is also the most stringent with maximum punishment of 10 years and higher penalty. The definition of mass conversion, in line with UP and MP, leaves room for absolute abuse since it simply punishes conversion of two or more persons even if it is not being carried out by illegal means like fraud etc.
The only provision that sets the Karnataka Bill apart from other similar laws, especially the ones passed in recent time by UP, MP, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand is that it does not consider “conversion by marriage” to be an illegal means. It only considers conversion carried out by “promise of marriage” to be illegal and as an offence.
The Bill has only been tabled and is yet to be passed. Certainly, like the other laws, this one is also likely to be passed amidst chaos and opposition in the House as clearly the Opposition is not agreeable to the Bill and its provisions.
Prevailing laws challenged
Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) originally challenged the constitutional validity of the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018 and the passing of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020. The plea was then amended to include similar laws passed by Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh as well, which was allowed by the top court.
The laws have been challenged stating that Indian citizens enjoy the Right to Privacy as a fundamental right but the Acts and the Ordinances are unconstitutional as they attempt to control the life of the residents of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, and to not allow them to take charge of the significant decisions in their life.
The petition has also said, “Love Jihad has played over the years to divide the country with no official numbers or evidence of forced conversions and that the fears of rising ‘love jihad’ cases have been “baseless” from the very start. Even though the rhetoric of Love Jihad has been sold off quite often in India, especially starting from Kerala and Karnataka, the Government had admitted that the term ‘Love Jihad’ is not defined under the extant laws and no such case of ‘Love Jihad’ has been reported by any of the central agencies.”
The complete Bill may be read here: