A special meeting of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan Cabinet on Saturday (December 26) cleared the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Svatantra Adhiniyam, 2020, also known as the Freedom of Religion Bill, 2020.
The stated aim of the Bill that will now be brought in the Assembly, is to stop forced religious conversions on the pretext of marriage, along with the use of force and misrepresentation, or other fraudulent means.
The Bill is likely to be tabled in the Madhya Pradesh House during the three-day session that starts on Monday (December 28).
Why does the government intend to enact this new law?
A similar law, MP Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam, 1968, to curb religious conversions, is at present in force in the state. This law will be repealed, and will be replaced by the new Freedom of Religion Bill, 2020.
It has been argued that the old law is ineffective in the present circumstances, and that its definitions are insufficient to stop forced conversions. The new Bill has been formulated to ensure that the loopholes of the existing law are plugged, with more stringent punishment and increased penalties for those who break it.
The Bill prohibits the use of misrepresentation, allurement, threat, force, undue influence, coercion, marriage or any fraudulent means for religious conversion. It also bars the use of abuse or conspiracy for religious conversion.
But aren’t people free to choose their religion? What if someone wants to convert voluntarily?
Once the Bill becomes law, a person who wants to undergo religious conversion of their own free will, and the priest who carries out the religious conversion, will have to give a notice to the district officer at least 60 days before the intended date of conversion.
If the priest who is carrying out the religious conversion fails to inform the district official 60 days in advance, they stand to be put in jail for 3-5 years, and pay a penalty of Rs 50,000.
What other punitive action does the new Bill specify?
Any person carrying out religious conversions in violation of the procedure set out in the Bill will face an imprisonment of 1-5 years, and a minimum penalty of Rs 25,000.
In case those being converted are minor, women, or members of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, the minimum punishment is a jail term of 2 years, which can go up to 10 years, along with a minimum penalty of Rs 50,000.
Those who use misrepresentation or impersonation — wherein they identify themselves from a different religion to befriend another person — and then indulge in conversion, will face a jail term of 3-10 years along with a minimum penalty of Rs 50,000.
For mass conversions with two or more people, a jail term of 5-10 years, with a minimum penalty of Rs 1 lakh, is prescribed. Repeat offenders who resort to unlawful means for religious conversion will face a jail term of 5-10 years.
Who can register an offence under the proposed new law?
In case of forced conversion, the person who has been converted, their parents and siblings, can report the alleged crime at the nearest police station.
The new law also empowers the guardian or custodian to approach the court with their complaint, and subsequently get an order for an offence to be registered with the police.
Who will investigate such cases of religious conversion? Where will the case be heard?
The offence is cognizable and non-bailable. It will be investigated by a police officer of rank not lower than sub-inspector at the local police station.
The sessions court is empowered to hear matters related to the Freedom of Religion Bill 2020. The burden of proving innocence lies on the accused.
And what if a marriage takes place in contravention of the provisions of the proposed law?
Such a marriage will be annulled under the proposed law. A child born out of such a marriage will have a right to their father’s property. Both the woman and the child will be entitled to receive maintenance from the father even after the marriage has been made null and void.
Religious organisations indulging in forced conversions will have their registration cancelled. Those indulging in mass conversions will also face a jail term up to 10 years, and a penalty of not less than Rs 1 lakh.