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Friday, January 21, 2022

Karnataka’s draft Bill has 10-year jail term for ‘forced conversion’

🔴 Draft bill proposes maximum 10-year imprisonment for forcible religious conversion of SCs, STs, minors and women

Written by Johnson T A | Belagavi |
Updated: December 17, 2021 7:38:50 am
The proposed new anti-conversion law, in its current draft form, says that "conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, coercion, allurement or marriage’’ is prohibited. (Representational/File)

A draft bill to prevent religious conversion in Karnataka, called the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill 2021, has proposed a maximum punishment of 10 years of imprisonment for forcible conversion of persons from Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe communities, minors and women, to another religion.

The ruling BJP is pushing for introducing this stringent bill in the Karnataka Legislature Assembly during its winter session in Belagavi, with the state government holding a series of meetings over the last few days to examine the validity of the proposed legislation. At its Legislature Party meeting held on Wednesday night, the BJP decided to table the bill in the House during the ongoing session.

On Thursday, state home minister Araga Jnanendra, whose ministry is piloting the bill, held a meeting with the state law and parliamentary affairs minister J C Madhuswamy to “apply the final touches’’ to the proposed new law. The draft bill was also subsequently discussed at a meeting held by the state chief secretary with the home secretary and the secretary for parliamentary affairs and law.

Sources in the government said that there were still differences of opinion on the quantum of punishment to be provided for over conversion in the final bill. “We have decided to leave the final decision to the discretion of the state cabinet which will soon look at the bill before it is tabled in the legislature. The punishments are not finalized,’’ said a government official privy to the drafting of the bill.

“We have considered the existing laws on conversion in different states. We have also considered the judgments that have been delivered when these laws have been challenged. The bill is being drafted after consideration of all these aspects,’’ said an official who is aware of its drafting process.

The state cabinet is scheduled to meet on December 20 in Belagavi and the draft bill is expected to be tabled at the meeting and subsequently in the legislature next week.

The BJP, which is viewing the bill as a tool to create political traction for itself ahead of the 2023 state Assembly polls, is keen to push ahead with the bill despite the possibility of it being defeated by a combined Opposition in the Legislative Council.

BJP sources said that it was decided at its Legislature Party meeting to table the bill and “expose” the position of the Opposition Congress and JDS parties who have decided to oppose it.

The proposed new anti-conversion law, in its current draft form, says that “conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, coercion, allurement or marriage’’ is prohibited.

“No person shall convert or attempt to convert either directly or otherwise any other person from one religion to another by use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage, nor shall any person abet or conspire for conversions,’’ says the draft bill under consideration by the BJP government.

According to the proposed legislation, complaints of conversions can be filed by family members of a person who is getting converted, or any other person who is related to the person who is getting converted.

A jail term of three year to five years, and a fine of Rs 25,000, has been proposed for people violating the law in the case of people from general categories and a jail term of three to 10 years, and a fine of Rs 50,000 for people converting minors, women and persons from the SC and ST communities.

The proposed law also envisages payment of a compensation of Rs five lakh (on court orders) to victims of conversion by the persons attempting the conversion and double punishments for repeat offenses. Marriages conducted with the intention of conversions can be declared null and void by a family court or a jurisdictional court, the draft bill says.

The offense of conversion has been deemed to be a cognizable and non-bailable offense that can be tried in a magistrate’s court under the proposed law.

Any person intending to convert to another religion after the law comes into force will have to give a notice two months in advance of the conversion to the district magistrate, the person who is carrying out the conversion must give a notice one month in advance, and the district magistrate must conduct an enquiry through the police on the real purpose of the conversion, says the draft law.

Not informing authorities will result in a prison term of six months to three years for persons who are converted and one year to five years for the persons carrying out the conversions, as per the draft bill.

The proposed law also requires the person who gets converted to inform the district magistrate of the conversion within 30 days of conversion and must appear before the DM to confirm identity. Not informing the DM will lead to the conversion being declared null and void.

Once the conversion is confirmed, the district magistrate will have to inform revenue authorities, the social welfare, minority, backward classes and other departments of the conversion, who will, in turn, take steps with respect to the entitlements of the person in terms of reservations and other benefits.

The BJP government has cited the Supreme Court order in the Rev Stanislaus versus State of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa case from 1977 to justify the introduction of the anti-conversion law. The Supreme Court order said that the right to propagate religion under section 25 of the Constitution of India does not include the right to convert, claims the justification provided in the draft bill. The BJP government has also cited an increase in alleged conversion cases in the state behind its bid to introduce the bill.

The Law Commission of Karnataka, in its 30th report, had proposed a law to curb conversions, the draft bill has stated.

The Opposition parties including the Congress and the JDS have threatened to oppose the bill. “There is a provision in the Constitution for people to convert to a religion of their choice. If there are forcible conversions, strict legal action can be taken. The anti-conversion law is part of the communal agenda of the BJP. The BJP does not have the courage to seek votes on the basis of their accomplishments so they are injecting the venom of communalism into the minds of people. They want to win polls with the Hindutva agenda,” former Congress CM Siddaramaiah has said.

The state Congress chief D K Shivakumar has said that the proposed law could affect foreign investments in Karnataka. The JDS leader and former CM, H D Kumaraswamy, said his party will oppose the bill.

Similar anti-conversion laws have been brought by the BJP in some other states it rules, including in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Their validity has been challenged before some courts.

Anti-conversion laws in other BJP states

As the BJP-ruled Karnataka government seems all set to bring in a stringent anti-conversion legislation, it is closely examining similar laws brought by the BJP in some other states, including in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

The anti-conversion law brought by MP, UP, and HP outlaws religious conversion solely for the purpose of marriage. A common feature of all three laws is the declaration of such marriages as “null and void” and the penalising of conversions done without the prior approval of the state. They, however, differ in the quantum of punishment prescribed, and in attributing the burden of proof that a conversion is lawful.

In August this year, the Gujarat High Court stayed key provisions of The Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021 pertaining to marriages involving religious conversion of either of the two parties. The court’s ruling, although preliminary, came as a relief to interfaith couples.

The BJP-ruled Gujarat government had amended the 2003 Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, which was brought in line with several similar laws enacted since last year by the BJP-ruled states, starting with UP.

These laws ostensibly seek to end conversion through unlawful means, specifically prohibit any conversion for marriage, even if it is with the consent of the individual except when prior sanction is obtained from the state. They shift the burden of proof of a lawful religious conversion from the converted to his/her partner; define “allurement” for religious conversion in vague terms; prescribe different jail terms based on gender; and legitimate the intrusion of family and society at large to oppose inter-faith marriages. They also give powers to the state to conduct a police inquiry to verify the intentions of the parties to convert for the purposes of marriage.

Legal experts have pointed out that such anti-conversion laws impinge on an individual’s agency to marry a partner from a different faith and to choose to convert from one’s religion for that purpose. The freedom to propagate one’s religion and the right to choose a partner are fundamental constitutional rights that these laws might violate.

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