The Himachal Pradesh Government has updated an earlier anti-conversion law, increasing the quantum of punishment and adding new provisions, including one which was earlier struck down by the high court.
In 2006, the Himachal Pradesh government led by Virbhadra Singh became the first Congress-ruled state to pass an anti-conversion law. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act was aimed at reported conversions done by Christian missionaries in the hill state. Soon there were reports that Christian organisations had complained about the law to the Congress High Command and later challenged the law in the High Court.
Over 13 years on, the present state government under Jai Ram Thakur government has amended the law with the quantum of punishment raised from three to seven years. It has also broadened the scope of the law to deal with what Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) calls “love jihad”. Late August, the Bill was passed unanimously with the Congress backing it in the House.
Among the eight new provisions added in the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill 2019 is one that covers marriage done with the sole purpose of conversion. “Any marriage done for the sole purpose of conversion by a person of one religion with a person of another religion either by converting himself before or after marriage or by converting the other person before or after marriage may be declared null and void by the family court,” reads Section 5 of the Act. Meanwhile, as per Section 3, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert by either directly or indirectly, any other person from one religion to another by use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, inducement or any fraudulent means or by marriage, nor shall any person abet or conspire such conversion.”
Chief Minister Thakur said the earlier law was just cosmetic and lacked both, political will as well as the resolve to question those indulging in the “crime of religious conversions”. “During the past 13 years, not even a single case was filed under the 2006 Act, despite a series of religious conversions happening in areas of Ani in interior Kullu, Rampur in Shimla district, Chirgaon and Rohru (Shimla) and many other places of Chamba and Kangra. We will not allow this to happen as it disturbs the peace, and creates unnecessary tensions in the society,” the CM added.
The maximum punishment will be up to seven years in case of conversion of persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or woman. Other cases will attract punishment of five years against the earlier two years. There is also provision for a fine of up to Rs 50,000.
The VHP and the Hindu Jagran Manch have congratulated the chief minister for what they called a “historic legislation” and want the police to launch a special drive to file FIRs in all the cases that happened during the past couple of months.
The Christian community, however, is calling it an infringement of fundamental rights to practice religion. Human rights Activist and Christian leader John Dayal said, “This is an attempt to deny freedom of faith to a large number of people, above all demonise some religions”. “The competitive vote bank politics of the Congress and the BJP in the tiny state of Himachal is trying to pit the upper caste Hindus against tiniest Christian concentration in the country. It seems designed to buttress claims of the state as a Dev Bhoomi where no outsider can come. The High Court had thrown out the prior permission rule made by the last (Congress) regime. I am sure the courts will throw out the devious method of overcoming a court judgement,” he said, suggesting the Act will be challenged in court soon.
On August 31, 2012, the High Court has struck down Section 4 (rule 3 and 5 ) of the previous Act wherein it was required for any person intending to convert to give a notice to the Deputy Commissioner at least 30 days before.
“It is because of this that religious conversions continued discreetly. Those who were converted were told not to change their names, but were still taken to Churches,” the chief minister claimed. The same provision has been added again in the new law.
Listing instances, Kamal Gautam, who heads ‘Beti bachao’ wing of the Hindi Jagran Manch, claimed to have rescued at least three women, one of these from Baramulla district of Kashmir, after they “eloped” or were “allured on the pretext of marriages”.
Former Director General of Police I D Bhandari said “the bill as such has no problem, but giving a colour of love jihad to any inter-religion marriage, particularly when the girl is educated and fully aware of her rights, will not be fair. Of course, if such a conversion is done through economic allurements, fraud, by force and misrepresenting facts (like a Muslim posing as a Hindu), the law must apply strictly.”
Senior church officials in Shimla refused to comment, saying they “have not read the bill”. However, they said Hindu activists have attacked priests, claiming they were missionaries indulging in conversions in the state.
Ashwani Sharma is a Shimla based journalist and a former correspondent with The Indian Express