The Madhya Pradesh government claimed to have set into motion “the most stringent” law in the country against ‘love jihad’, clearing a Religion to Freedom Bill on Saturday that plans higher penalties (jail terms and fines going up to 10 years and Rs 1 lakh), as compared to the law in Uttar Pradesh, as well as maintenance to the woman concerned and the right to father’s property for a child born to a couple whose marriage has been declared null and void under its provisions.
Briefing the media after a Cabinet meeting, Home Minister Narottam Mishra described the Bill as “the most stringent” against “the practice of love jihad”. Apart from BJP-ruled MP and UP, the party’s Himachal Pradesh government has also notified a similar legislation with the aim of “checking conversions”.
In a significant departure from the UP ordinance though on registration of FIRs in such cases, the MP Bill says these can be dealt only by police personnel not less than the rank of sub-inspector, and that parents and siblings of the affected individual alone can file a complaint directly. In case a guardian or a custodian wants to register an offence, they must approach a Sessions Court authorised to deal with these matters and get a court order.
In UP, any “aggrieved person”, who may have no connection with the couple involved, can register an FIR. In several cases in the state, right-wing organisations have been accused of putting pressure on families to register complaints.
Once an FIR has been registered, in both MP and UP, the burden to prove one’s innocence lies on the accused. Those identified as frequent offenders can face jail terms of five to 10 years.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan tweeted, “We will not allow anyone to carry out religious conversion using force, threat or allurement in Madhya Pradesh. For this we have made our law of 1968 more effective to ensure none of the perpetrators go free.”
Claiming to curb religious conversions using misrepresentation, allurement, force, threat, undue influence, coercion, marriage or any other “fraudulent means”, the MP Bill stipulates jail terms of one to five years, with a fine of Rs 25,000, in such cases. The penalty in case of a person using “misrepresentation” or “impersonation” for religious conversion will be higher, including a jail term of three-10 years and a fine of Rs 50,000.
In contrast, the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, passed last month, stipulates that religious conversion using any of the above means, including misrepresentation and impersonation, would entail a jail term of one to five years and a fine of Rs 15,000.
The other big departure between the MP Bill and UP law is the provision for maintenance to women and right to property to children in the marriage under question, in the legislation planned by the Chouhan government. The matter of maintenance will be dealt as per Section 125 of the CrPC.
In both states, marriages proved to have been undertaken for the sole purpose of religious conversion or conducted without appropriate notice to the district administration can be declared null and void by family courts.
Return to one’s original religion — the religion one is born into or that practised by one’s father — will not be counted as conversion under the MP Bill. This is the same as in the UP legislation.
While both the UP law and MP Bill envisage a jail term of two to 10 years in case a person being converted is a minor, or belongs to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, the MP legislation talks of a penalty of Rs 50,000, against Rs 25,000 in UP.
Both the legislation talk of three- to five-year prison terms for religious organisations or individuals seen as carrying out mass conversions, but again the penalty in MP is higher (Rs 1 lakh) than UP (Rs 50,000).
In both states, organisations or priests carrying out conversions have to inform the district administration about 60 days before the date of conversion, failing which the organisation can have its registration cancelled and the priest or facilitator face a jail term. But the MP Bill stipulates a higher penalty (of Rs 50,000, and three-five years’ jail term) in such cases, compared to one to five years and Rs 25,000 in UP.
The MP government held a special Cabinet meeting to clear the Bill, and it is expected to be placed before the Assembly on December 28 when the House meets for three days for the purpose of clearing the legislation. It will replace an existing Freedom to Religion Act of 1968 in the state.
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