Millennium Post

Debating religious conversions

The bill is known as MP Dharma Swatantrya (Amendment) Act, and is an amendment of the 45-year-old ‘Religious Freedom Act.’ It provides for stringent punishment to those who convert from one religion to another. The bill also provides for punishment to the priest who converts any person from one religious faith to another.
The punishment will be awarded if it is established that the conversion was forcible or was done by allurement. The present bill seeks to enhance both the period of imprisonment and amount of fine.

The original bill was passed by MP Vidhan Sabha in 1968, when a coalition ministry, consisting of Congress defectors, Jana Sangh and Socialist members, was ruling the state. The coalition ministry was known as the SVD government. The bill sought to implement recommendations made by Justice Niyogi commission.

The Niyogi commission was set up by late Ravi Shankar Shukla, who was chief minister of the erstwhile state of CP and Berar. The Niyogi commission was asked to go into the problem of religious conversions. However, neither Shukla himself nor the successive chief ministers of new Madhya Pradesh, which came into being in 1956, implemented its recommendations. But when the SVD government assumed power, the Jana Sangh strongman, late Virendra Kumar Sakhlecha, who was deputy chief minister holding the crucial home portfolio, moved the bill, which was passed in the absence of the Congress members.

The Congress members, instead of opposing the bill, chose to abstain from the House. The bill, which later became a law, provided for both imprisonment and fine for conversions using fraud, force or allurement. But the law almost remained dormant. It was rarely, if ever, invoked. But the chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan decided to amend the original Act. A bill to that effect was passed by the Vidhan Sabha in 2006. The passage of the bill was marked by loud protests by secular organisations and also organisations of Christians and Buddhists. Many organisations urged the then governor Balram Jakhar not to give his assent to the bill. Instead of sending it back to the government for reconsideration, which the Constitution provides for, Jakhar sent it to the President seeking his opinion.

The President referred it to the then solicitor-general of India. The solicitor-general, after going through various clauses of the amendment bill, opined that sub-section 3 of Section 5 of the law was flawed. On receiving the intimation under sub-section (1) and (2) from any person or the priest concerned of the intend to convert to another religion, the sub-section (3) provided that the district magistrate would inform the details of the proposed conversion to the concerned superintendent of police, who was to ascertain through the officer-in-charge of the concerned police station regarding objections, if any, to the proposed conversion by local enquiry. ‘Sub section (3) is not happily worded at all. The enquiry was supposed to be with regard to objections, if any, to the proposed conversion, but it was not required to enquire whether the conversion was forcible or not. If somebody merely objects to the proposed conversion, does that make it forcible?’ the solicitor-general asked.

According to the solicitor-general’s report, which is in the possession of the IPA, the second problem was that if anybody objected to the conversion, it could result in an adverse report. ‘A mere objection leads to an adverse report irrespective of whether it is forcible or not. A conversion may be purely voluntary but any objection can lead to an adverse report.

‘I do not agree with the view that a superintendent of police may report that the conversion is forcible or not of its own free will. This is not what the proposed sub section 5(3) requires to report. The superintendent of police is required to report any objections to the proposed conversion. Such a provision is not only vague but also unreasonable since it does not focus on the real issue, namely whether the conversion is forcible or not.

There is clear ambiguity in the proposed sub section 5(3). I have indicated the implications hereinabove. It is unreasonable to bring about a nebulous situation leading to deterring a person from going through and exercising his right to convert on the basis of a negative report based on extraneous factors such as ‘objections’ to the conversion. The failure to provide clearly as to what is to happen in the case of an adverse report renders the proposed clause unreasonable. The wording of Sub section 3, which refers to objections (and not to forcible conversion), is contrary to the spirit of the Act. It would be quite strange that if somebody objects to a conversion then that would be treated as the conversion being forcible,’ it said.

On the basis of solicitor-general’s report, the governor did not give his assent to the bills. Keeping the solicitor-general’s objections aside, the BJP government introduced a new bill, containing more stringent provisions. The new bill provided that conversion cannot be done without the permission of the district collector. The bill, incidentally, was passed by the Vidhan Sabha on 11 July without any debate. Besides opposition parties, Christian, Buddhist and Secular organisations have also opposed the measure. In memoranda submitted to the governor, these organisations said that the bill violated the fundamental right of freedom of religion enshrined in the Constitution. They also pointed out that the bill could be misused to harass Christian missionaries and browbeat them. They have demanded the governor to withhold his consent to the bill.
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