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Ban on ‘mass conversion’, 10-yr jail: Ahead of HP polls, BJP govt passes more stringent Bill

The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, passed unanimously by the House, inserts in the 2019 law a reference to “mass conversion”, which is described as two or more people converting at the same time.

Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh Jai Ram Thakur. (File)

On the last day of the final session of the current House before the state heads for polls slated for November, the Himachal Pradesh Assembly Saturday passed a Bill amending the current anti-religious conversion law to ban any “mass conversion” and enhance the maximum punishment for forced conversion to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment from the exiting seven years.

The Jairam Thakur-led BJP government tabled the amendment to the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019,
in the ongoing Monsoon Session of the Assembly on Friday.

The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, passed unanimously by the House, inserts in the 2019 law a reference to “mass conversion”, which is described as two or more people converting at the same time.

The government asserted that it brought the amended legislation to make the 2019 anti-conversion law more stringent, which prohibits the  conversion from one religion to another through coercion, misrepresentation or fraudulent means while stipulating a maximum seven-year jail punishment for the crime.

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Participating in the debate on the Bill in the House, CM Thakur said, “I respect all religions. Despite the point that religion should be a matter of faith and trust, some of our people are being targeted with false promises and coercion. We have seen a period of religious conversions. If someone wants to convert on their own will, there is freedom.”

Referring to the 2019 law that was passed to amend a similar 2006 law to make the penalty against conversion more stringent, Thakur said that his government has now amended it to give it more teeth whose “result will be visible in coming times”.
He said the provisions of the amended Act were “unique to Himachal Pradesh as no other state has such an Act on forceful and mass conversions”.

The Opposition parties argued that the amended law will contravene the constitutional provisions for persons belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs). The lone CPI(M) MLA Rakesh Singha told the House that these vulnerable communities will be victimised by the new law.

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Thakur however said, “We have utmost respect for the Scheduled Castes. We have made reference to the provisions in the Constitution. In the entire provisions, there is no specific targeting of any community. It only focuses on the fact that if a person is voluntarily converting to another religion they must declare it beforehand.”

Section 3 of the Freedom Act states, “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, inducement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage.” The amended legislation states that “Provided further that whosoever contravenes the provisions of section 3 in respect of mass conversion shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which shall not be less than five years, but which may extend to ten years”.

The person accused of carrying out mass conversions will also be liable for a fine of up to Rs 1.5 lakh. If a person is found to be accused of a second offence of the same nature, the quantum of prison may extend to a minimum of seven years and a maximum of ten years.

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The amendment Bill further provides that if a person conceals his religion while marrying someone from another religion shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which shall not be less than three years, but which may extend to ten years. The person will also be liable to a fine which shall not be less than Rs 50,000 and also may extend to Rs 1 lakh.

The 2019 Act provides that a person converting to another religion out of own will shall give notice to the office of District Magistrate a month in advance. Any violation of the same would be deemed a punishable offence. The priest performing the religious conversion will also have to declare their religion in advance, the Act states.  An addition to the clause has been added in the new legislation, which states that any person who makes a false declaration or continues to draw the benefit of his parent religion or caste even after conversion shall be punished to not less than two years or extended to five years of imprisonment.
Earlier the DM would authorise an inquiry into allegations of conversions. As per the amended Bill, a sub-inspector level officer will be authorised to carry out an investigation in the conversion case. The offence under this Act is non-bailable and the accused will be tried by the Court of Session, it states.

The principal Opposition Congress, while supporting the amended legislation in principle, flayed the BJP for “opportunism”. “Congress was the party that brought an anti-conversion bill in Himachal Pradesh in 2006 (during the Virbhadra Singh government), which came into effect in 2007. BJP is just capitalising on it before election,” said party leader RS Bali.

First published on: 13-08-2022 at 11:56:38 pm
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