The Madhya Pradesh cabinet on Saturday approved a proposed law to regulate interfaith marriages in the state that provides for up to 10 years in jail for “forcing women, minors, and people from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to undergo religious conversion” with a special clause on no punitive action against those returning to their ancestral religion.
The proposed law called the Madhya Pradesh Dharmik Swatantrata (Freedom of Religion) Bill, 2020 says “Paitrik Dharm me Wapsi” (return to the father’s religion) will not be treated as conversion. “Under this legislation, the re-conversion to the ancestral religion will not be treated as conversion,” said the draft law, defining ancestral religion as the religion of the father of the person at the time of his birth.
Madhya Pradesh home minister Nirottam Mishra said re-conversion will not be a punishable offence under this law because it is more a realisation of a mistake than a crime.
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The proposed legislation will replace the 1968 Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, said Mishra, and is different from the Uttar Pradesh government’s legislation promulgated through an ordinance on November 25. Unlike the MP law, the UP ordinance does not provide for parental property rights to children of an interfaith marriage, monthly maintenance and a Rs50,000 fine for an inter-religion union without permission of the district magistrate. In UP, the fine amount is Rs25,000. The jail terms in the two laws are equal.
“The bill seeks to prohibit religious conversions or an attempt of conversion by means of misrepresentation, allurement, threat, undue influence, coercion, marriage, and any other fraudulent means. Such a conspiracy and abetting a person for conversion has also been prohibited,” Mishra said.
According to a draft of the bill approved, “The forced conversion of a woman, minor, scheduled caste and scheduled tribe will attract 2-10 years imprisonment and a minimum fine of Rs50,000. Mass forced conversion will attract 5-10 years of jail term and fine of up to Rs1 lakh. Burden of proof will lie on the accused.”
“The forceful conversions and marriages will be a cognisable offence and non-bailable. There will be a provision for declaring interfaith forceful marriages and forced conversion null and void. The person and religious gurus have to inform the district magistrate at least 60 days prior to the scheduled date of marriage. The violation of this rule will attract 3-5 years of jail and a minimum fine of Rs50,000,” said the bill.
“The MP government has come up with the toughest rule against forced conversion in India. By providing justice to the victim of forced conversion, the proposed legislation will ensure her rights too,” Mishra said.
Retired high court judge AK Gohil said, “The bill doesn’t have any provision to deal with past cases of forced conversion and also there is no time limit of lodging a complaint with police after marriage. Like the Dowry Prohibition Act, which has a time limit of lodging an FIR up to seven years of marriage, this proposed act should also mention the time period limit for lodging an FIR.”
MP Congress committee spokesperson Narendra Saluja said, “We welcome this bill but the provisions are more the agenda of the BJP than a real concern for women. The BJP is trying to create a rift in society to win elections.”
Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind state president Hazi Haroon said, “From the chief minister to BJP MLAs, all the BJP leaders are using the bill as a step against love jihad. BJP leaders are targeting the Muslim community with this bill. If love jihad is really a big issue and crime, they should have mentioned this in the bill. But the state government has not mentioned it as they know that the bill can be easily challenged in a court of law.”
Raising concern, social activist Indira Iyengar said, “Now, violent incidents against members of the Christian community will increase in the name of re-conversion. In tribal areas, saffron organisation members are already targeting converted Christians. Now, they will get a free hand to threaten people for lodging fake complaints of forced conversion and also for forcing tribal people to re-convert to the Hindu religion.”
MP BJP spokesperson Rajnesh Agrawal said, “Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan clearly said this bill is a part of the Beti Bachao Abhiyan of the MP government. The bill is against forced conversion, not against conversion. People are free to change their religion by just informing the district magistrate. Congress leaders are nowadays working to misguide people to win their lost political ground. But the citizens of MP are intelligent enough to understand what is right or wrong.”