On November 29, the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 was approved by the Uttarakhand State Assembly in order to strengthen the 2018 “Anti Conversion Law”. On the first day of the winter session of the Assembly, State Minister Satpal Maharaj introduced the bill before the State Assembly, which was passed a day later—to make the four-year-old anti-conversion Act- Uttarakhand ‘Freedom of Religion’ Act, 2018- even more stringent, stricter and firmer.
The amendment provides that the maximum sentence for “forcible conversion” will be increased from the current five years to ten years in jail and that conversion will become a cognizable, non-bailable “crime.”
The new provisions also mean that the state police can take cognisance of complaints; they cannot, however, release the accused on bail, which can only be secured from courts. Mass Conversion is defined under the bill as “when the religion of two or more persons is converted.” Similar to this, “any conversion that is not in compliance with the legislation of the land” has been classified as an “unlawful religious conversion.”
“No person shall convert, either directly or otherwise, any other person from one religion to another by use or practice of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means. No person shall abet, convince or conspire such conversion,” says the Act.
The amendment bill provides that, in addition to the fine that has been imposed on the perpetrator, the victim of an unlawful conversion may now receive up to Rs. 5 lakh from the accused by way of compensation.
Significantly, the law would make it mandatory for anyone intending to change their religion to provide a declaration to the relevant District Magistrate within 60 days of doing so.
Earlier, the act simply required a declaration prior to religious change. A sentence of at least 6 months and up to 3 years may be imposed for failing to make a declaration prior to conversion.
Similar to this, a religious priest who conducts a purification ‘Sanskar’ or conversion ceremony for converting religion may face imprisonment for a minimum of 1 year and a maximum of 5 years if he fails to notify the concerned DM about the conversion one month in advance.
Previously, the penalty ranged from a minimum of six months to two years in prison.
State Minister stated the goals and justifications for the bill, saying, “In the State of Uttarakhand, under articles 25, 26, 27 and 28 of the Constitution of India, under Right to Freedom of Religion, to equally strengthen the importance of every religion, the amendment in Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018 is necessary to remove certain difficulties in the Act.
The new rule will be rigorously enforced in the state, according to Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, following the passage of this bill. Since Uttarakhand is “the country of the gods” and acts like religious conversion are “detrimental to us,” he claimed that a more stringent anti-conversion law was required.
Other States with Stringent Anti-Conversion Laws
The state of Uttarakhand is not the first state in the recent times to have tightened the noose around those who wish to convert their religion by way of marriage or otherwise or even take part in practices with the aim of propagating their religion.
The anti-conversion bill was approved by the Haryana Assembly in March 2022 despite protests and an Opposition walkout. Forced religious conversion is punishable by a fine of at least Rs. 1 lakh and up to five years in jail under the Haryana Prevention of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Bill, 2022. A person who converts or attempts to convert a minor, a woman, or a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe shall be punished with imprisonment for a term that shall not be less than four years, which may extend to 10 years, and liable to a fine of not less than Rs 3 lakh, according to the Haryana anti-conversion bill.
Congress leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda argued that the legal framework is already in place to sanction individuals who engage in forceful conversions. The Congress party vehemently opposed the bill. According to Hooda, the leader of the opposition in the Haryana Assembly, there is no need to introduce a separate law to prevent conversions to other religions.
The Himachal Pradesh Assembly approved a bill in August 2022 to stiffen the state’s anti-conversion statute from 2019 by prohibiting converts from receiving “any benefit” from their parents’ religion or caste and increasing the maximum punishment to 10 years in prison.
The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, which was approved by voice vote, also forbids “mass conversion,” which is the forced or coerced conversion of two or more persons at once.
The measure also suggests increasing the maximum sentence for unauthorised conversions from seven years to a maximum of ten years.
The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019, which just entered into force less than 18 months ago, was amended by a bill that was filed by the BJP-led government.
Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 popularly known as the anti-conversion bill, was established as a law in May, 2022 after the state governor Thaawar Chand Gehlot gave his assent to the ordinance the controversial bill.
The bill introduced by the BJP government in Karnataka has been approved as a law in the state, under which any person can file a complaint against religious conversion, protecting the right to freedom of religion in Karnataka.
According to the new law, any converted person, his parents, brother, sister, or any other person who is related to him by blood, marriage, adoption, or in any form associated, or colleague may lodge a complaint of such conversion which contravenes the provisions. The offence is made to be a non-bailable and cognizable offence.
Any person who commits conversion by the illegal means 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.
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 in line with the Madhya Pradesh law and the maximum punishment is in line with Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh laws. 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.
Recent decisions by the Judiciary to curb the powers granted to the state by these arbitrary laws
In November 2022, the Madhya Pradesh High Court barred the state government from using coercion against anyone who disobeys section 10 of the MP Freedom of Religion Act, which requires anyone who wishes to convert to another religion to notify the district administration in advance. The petitioners had asked the court to invalidate the MP Freedom of Religion Act 2021 as being unconstitutional.
In August 2021, the Gujarat High Court Bench of Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Justice Biren Vaishnav passed an interim order ruling against the provisions of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021. It ordered that they said provisions will not apply to inter-faith marriages that take place without force, allurement or fraudulent means. The court had declared that the rigours of Section 3, 4, 4A to 4C, 5, 6, and 6A of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act shall not operate merely because the marriage is solemnised by a person of one religion with another, without force or by allurement or by fraudulent means and such marriages cannot be termed as marriages for the purposes of unlawful conversion.
In November, 2021 the Allahabad High Court allowed the registration of the marriages of 17 interfaith couples even though they had not obtained the district authority’s approval for conversion, as required by the Uttar Pradesh anti-conversion law. the court asked the state authorities and the families of the couples to restrain themselves from “interfering with the life, liberty and privacy” of these individuals.
It said that the registrar should register the marriage “without insisting/awaiting approval of the competent district authority with regard to conversion of faith”. The approval of conversion from district authority is “directory and not mandatory”, the court said.
CJP’s plea in Supreme Court against the Anti-Conversion Laws
In December 2020, a PIL was been filed by Citizens for Justice and Peace against the then Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unwlaful Conversion of Religion Law 2020 and the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018, ostensibly prohibiting forceful prohibition of conversion for the purposes of marriage.
The Petitioner-organisation had contended in its petition that the provisions of the impugned Acts violate Article 21 of the Constitution as it empowers the State to suppress an individual’s personal liberty and impinge upon an individual’s right to freedom of choice and right to freedom of religion.
It further submitted that the “right to convert” oneself to another religion is manifested in Article 25 of the Constitution. However, the said Acts impinge upon this right by imposing unreasonable and discriminatory restrictions on it by mandating that the administration be informed of such intention and a probe be launched in such a personal and intimate exercise of one’s right.
Later, in February 2021, CJP then approached the Supreme Court seeking permission to challenge Love-jihad laws passed by Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in its same plea which seeks to challenge the laws made by Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand against religious conversions for the sake of marriages. The Supreme Court had then allowed CJP to make Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh as respondent parties to the petition.
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