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Key Takeaways

  • The bill has been introduced after the recommendation of the 30th Report of Law Commission of Karnataka.
  • The report dubbed these ‘illegal conversions’ as ‘a grave threat to the unity and integrity of the nation.’
  • The bill deals with the prohibition of conversion from one religion to another religion by misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, coercion, allurement, or marriage.
  • The maximum punishment for an illegal conversion provided in the bill is 10 years.

INTRODUCTION

Home Minister of Karnataka, Mr. Araga Jnanendra recently tabled the contentious ‘Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021’ or popularly dubbed as ‘anti-conversion bill’ in Karnataka State assembly. The bill penalizes ‘fraudulent conversion’ of religion. Under the Statement of Objects and Reasons, the draft bill states that 'In recent years the state has noticed many instances of conversion through 'allurement', 'coercion', 'force', 'fraudulent means', and also 'mass', conversion. These instances cause disturbance of 'public order' in the state. To prevent such instances which cause disturbance to public order and to punish such persons indulged in such acts at present no legislation is in existence in the state.’ The bill has been introduced after the recommendation of the 30th Report of Law Commission of Karnataka.

PROVISIONS OF THE BILL

The bill has been introduced in line with anti-conversion laws introduced in the state of UP and MP. Section 3 of the said bill deals with the prohibition of conversion from one religion to another religion by misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, coercion, allurement, or marriage.

1. Allurement

‘Allurement’ is the most common phraseology used while referring to cases of conversion of the poor and vulnerable. The bill defines allurement as an ‘offer’ or ‘temptation’ of the following:

a) Any gift, gratification, easy money, or material benefit either in cash or kind.

b) Employment, free education in reputed schools run by any religious body.

c) Promise to marry.

d) A better lifestyle, divine displeasure, or otherwise.

e) Disturbing the freedom of practice, rituals, and ceremonies, or any integral part of a religion.

f) Offending religious sentiments.

2. Religion Converter

The proposed bill defines a ‘religion converter’ as 'a person of any religion who performs any act of conversion from the religion to another religion and by whatever name he is called such as father, priest, purohit, pandit, maulvi, etc.'

3. Who can file an FIR?

The bill proposes that a First Information Report (FIR) in the matter of conversion that contravenes provisions of Section 3 can be filed by ‘any aggrieved person, his parents, brother, sister or any other person who is related to him by blood, marriage or adoption

4. Punishment under the bill

Section 5 provides for the punishment of illegal conversion. It states that anyone who contravenes the provision of Section 3 shall be ‘punished with imprisonment for a term, which shall not be less than three years but which may extend to five years and shall also be liable to fine which shall be less than rupees twenty-five thousand.’

The punishment is even higher when it comes to the case of a minor, a woman, or a person belonging to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe. The person who contravenes section 3 in the case of aforementioned people shall be ‘punished with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than three years but which may extend to ten years and shall also be liable to fine which shall be not less than rupees fifty thousand.'

In case of mass conversion, the punishment stays the same however, the fine increases to rupees one lakh.

5. Marriage

Section 6 of the bill states that marriage for the sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice versa to be declared void

6. Nature of the offense

Section 7 of the bill states that the offenses committed under the proposed bill, are cognizable and non-bailable. Such offenses are triable by the jurisdictional Judicial Magistrate of First Class or the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate as the case may be.

7. The burden of proof

According to Section 12, the burden of proof 'lies on the person who has caused the conversion and where such conversion has been facilitated by any person on such a person.’

PROCEDURE BEFORE CONVERSION

  1. One who desires to convert his religion shall give a declaration in at least sixty days in advance to the District Magistrate or the Additional District Magistrate specially authorized by the District Magistrate in this regard that he wishes to convert his religion on his free consent and without any force, coercion, undue influence or allurement.
  2. The religion converter will have to give a month's advance notice to the authorities where such a ceremony is proposed to be performed.
  3. The authorities will then get an inquiry conducted through police concerning the intention, purpose, and cause.
  4. Contravention to the rule will have the effect of rendering the proposed conversion illegal and void.

PROCEDURE AFTER CONVERSION

  1. One who desires to convert his religion shall give a declaration in at least sixty days in advance to the District Magistrate or the Additional District Magistrate specially authorized by the District Magistrate in this regard that he wishes to convert his religion on his free consent and without any force, coercion, undue influence or allurement.
  2. The religion converter will have to give a month's advance notice to the authorities where such a ceremony is proposed to be performed.
  3. The authorities will then get an inquiry conducted through police concerning the intention, purpose, and cause.
  4. Contravention to the rule will have the effect of rendering the proposed conversion illegal and void.

CONSTITUTIONAL VALIDITY OF THE BILL

30th Report of Karnataka Law Commission

The law commission of Karnataka in its 30th report recommended that a statute be enacted that would ensure an end to illegal conversion in the state of Karnataka. In the report, multiple references were made to Christian missionaries and their role in mass conversion. The report specifically pointed out the instance where Southern Baptist Church converted 800 Lingayats into Christians in the Hubli area in 1977 which was said to be around 3000 in 2006. The report dubbed these ‘illegal conversions’ as ‘a grave threat to the unity and integrity of the nation.’ The report referred to article 25 of the Indian Constitution which bestows upon its citizens the right to freedom of religion. The report stated that it’s not an absolute right it is ‘subject to regulation by the state.’ The right to propagate one’s religion does not include the use of ‘allurement’ and 'fraud’ to convert someone to a different religion, stated the report.

Ratilal Panachand Gandhi v. the State of Bombay

The Supreme Court in this case observed that under the Constitution of India, not only did everyone have the right to practice religious beliefs that their conscience permits but also the right to disseminate and propagate their religious views for the enlightenment of others.

Digyadarsan Rajendra Ramdassji v. State of Andhra Pradesh (1969)

In this landmark case, the Supreme Court has ruled that the right to propagate a person's beliefs to another or to publish the teachings of that belief, does not include the right to change another person to such beliefs. Therefore, it was judicially determined that propagation enjoys constitutional protection through the right to religious freedom, but conversion does not.

Rev. Stainislaus vs. State of Madhya Pradesh (1977)

In this landmark judgment, the constitution bench of the Supreme Court held that the right to freely practice and propagate one’s religion doesn’t include the right to convert and thus upheld the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrya Adhiniyam, 1968 introduced by the government of Madhya Pradesh to tackle increasing cases of fraudulent religious conversions. The court in the present judgment reinterpreted the meaning of the word ‘propagation’ and further stated that if a person wants to adopt any other religion, valid reasons must be produced for such conversion which shall be accompanied by free will.

Right to choose a partner

Section 6 of the Bill proposes to declare any marriage carried out with the purpose of fraudulent conversion to be void. Taken on face value, the provision doesn’t carry any red flags but on deeper inspection, it is a fair assumption that the provision could be used as a tool to disrupt communal harmony as it creates a blanket restriction on interfaith marriages.

The Supreme Court has confirmed the right to choose a free-choice partner as a fundamental right in a number of cases:

The Supreme Court in the case of Lata Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh and Shakti Vahini v. The Union of India reiterated this stance that a person's right to marry, regardless of faith, is a basic right guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The Allahabad High Court in the case of Trishla Rai and others v. the State of UP observed that individual freedom in matters of marriage should take precedence. Furthermore, as defined by the KS. Puttaswamy v. Union of India an individual's autonomy is defined as the ability to make important life decisions and marriage defines the life of a person. It’s the right of every person to freely make a choice in such matters without interruption as any restriction would mean curtailing the fundamental right of privacy.

CONCLUSION

After analysing multiple judicial pronouncements, we can confidently say that while religious conversion is not a fundamental right (as held in Stanislaus case), an individual has the freedom to follow and propagate any religion that appeals to his conscience and faith as long as the said religion (by way of religious conversion) is not based on allurement, coercion, fraud, etc.

As noted, the states have the legal ability and right to regulate religious conversions and interfaith marriages under the ambit of the Constitution of India. These laws, however, must be supported by evidence-based data and patterns and such laws must in no way interfere with an individual’s rights to equality, freedom, and personal liberty, as well as their right to life and privacy.


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