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‘Seem to be violating Article 25 of Constitution’: SC questions validity of UP Anti-Conversion Law

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Thursday raised questions about the Uttar Pradesh Anti-Conversion Law, suggesting that some aspects of it might infringe on the fundamental right to religion under Article 25 of the Constitution.

The case, heard by Justices J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, involved petitions from Dr Rajendra Bihari Lal, Vice Chancellor of Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences (SHUATS), and other defendants accused of forced religious conversions.

The cases against Lal concern offences under sections 307 (attempt to murder), 504 (intentional insult with an aim to provoke breach of peace) and 386 (extortion) of the Indian Penal Code. He has also been booked under certain provisions of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021.

The court sought clarification on the nature of the conversions, to which Senior Advocate Siddharth Dave, representing the accused, stated that they were from Hinduism to Christianity. The court further inquired if the conversions were forced or voluntary.

Dave explained that FIRs had been filed alleging coerced conversions. He pointed out that these FIRs were not filed by victims but co-accused, referencing section 4 of the UP Anti-Conversion law, which allows only the aggrieved person or their close relatives to file an FIR under the Act. The court questioned the possibility of a third party filing an FIR if they were aware of a conversion. Dave responded that the Act does not provide for such a scenario.

The court noted that conversion itself is not a crime unless it involves undue influence, misrepresentation, or coercion. In such cases, only the victim can claim illegal conversion. Upon examining the FIR, the court asked about the meaning of “420 and forgery”. Dave explained that it referred to allegations of allurement and changes in personal documents.

The court also asked about the mention of a church ritual and whether there were any witness statements regarding coercion. Dave responded that the FIRs did not provide sufficient details to indicate any offence. Senior Advocate Mukta Gupta, representing other accused, argued that the FIRs were vague and lodged at a very delayed stage. She also pointed out that the accused were named as victims in the FIRs. The court then asked about section 10 of the Act, which attaches vicarious liability to institutions. Dave clarified that the institution must be involved in the offence for this to apply.

Senior Advocate Rebecca John, representing other accused, requested the quashing of the FIRs, arguing that they were registered several months after the alleged incident, indicating mala fide intent. The court sought to understand the difference between individual and mass conversions. John explained that the Act provides a harsher punishment for mass conversions. The court then asked who could file a complaint in the case of mass conversions. John clarified that anyone aggrieved by a mass conversion could file an FIR.

Finally, Senior Advocate Siddharth Aggarwal, representing other accused, attempted to explain the provisions of the Act. Justice Misra observed that parts of the anti-conversion law might violate Article 25. The court decided to treat the current petitions as part-heard and ordered a halt to further proceedings in the FIRs until the next hearing.

The Uttar Pradesh Police had earlier told the court that Lal and the other accused are the “main perpetrators” of a mass religious conversion programme that involved funds from about 20 countries.

Police have alleged that Lal, among the other accused, is actually a “notorious criminal” involved in 38 cases of various nature, including cheating and murder, registered across Uttar Pradesh over the last two decades. Police have also alleged that about 90 Hindus congregated at the Evangelical Church of India in Hariharganj, Fatehpur for converting to Christianity and were put under “undue influence, coercion, and lured through fraud and the promise of easy money”.

The UP law requires the District Magistrate’s prior sanction for religious conversion. The bench will resume the hearing on August 2. with agency inputs

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