Divisive by design

Madhya Pradesh government’s anti-love jehad Bill to curb interfaith marriages by ‘forced conversion’

Print edition : December 18, 2020

Narottam Mishra , Madhya Pradesh Home Minister, talking to the media about the proposed anti-love jehad Bill in Bhopal on November 17. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Uma Bharti addressing members of the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad and the Hindu Jagran Manch from Jhabua district in Bhopal on January 20, 2004. They met her with a request to stop religious conversion by Christian missionaries in the district. In February 2020, a sessions court in Ratlam acquitted eight Christians who were booked under the Freedom of Religion Act in May 2017 on charges of kidnapping and forcibly converting 60 children from Jhabua district. Photo: The Hindu archives

The Madhya Pradesh government’s anti-‘love jehad’ Bill against forced conversion for interfaith marriage has sparked off unease among Muslims in the State who view it as another tool to repress the community.

Close on the heels of the Uttar Pradesh government’s legislation, Madhya Pradesh seeks to introduce its own edition of the anti-‘love jehad’ Bill with the express objective of curtailing “conversions for marriage that are forced, by fraud or through allurement”. State Home Minister Narottam Mishra has not shared any documented evidence of such transgressions to explain the urgent need for such alaw when the State already has a law against forced conversions. This has raised questions regarding the timing and intent of the proposed Bill.

On November 17, Mishra briefed the media that the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government would introduce the Madhya Pradesh Religious Freedom Bill, 2020, to prohibit marriage on the basis of forced religious conversions. The Bill is aimed at making forced religious conversions and ‘love-jehad’ a non-bailable offence wherein the main accused and his/her associates in crime will be awarded a rigorous punishment of upto five years. The co-accused will be treated as the main accused and will be awarded the same punishment. However, these provisions will become applicable only when the complaint of such a nature is made by the person/persons “converted by fraud, allurement or force” or their parents or siblings.
Also read: Love jehad and Karnataka

As per the information available, a provision in the Bill will make it obligatory on the part of an interfaith couple to notify the District Collector one month in advance before formalising their marriage. Mishra said, “There will be provision to declare marriages taking place forcefully, by fraud or by tempting someone, for religious conversion, null and void. Those assisting in committing this crime will also be considered a party to the crime.”

Mishra’s announcement came days after Shivraj Singh Chouhan told reporters in Bhopal:“No jehad will be allowed in the name of love. If anyone tries any such thing, they will be set right. And for this, legal provisions will be made.”At a high-level meeting with State officials in November, the Chief Minister reiterated his intent to bring in a law against ‘love-jehad’ in the State.

But the BJP leadership’s failure to illustrate the ‘phenomenon of ‘love-jehad’ with ample and relevant cases gives credence to the opposition’s point of view that it is a bogey raised with political calculations in mind. Some of the developments the BJP attempted to project as a case of ‘love jehad’ also point in that direction.
Also read: UP's love jehad ordinance

In October 2019, Surender Nath Singh, former BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly from Bhopal, linked his 26-year-old daughter Bharati’s ‘disappearance’ to ‘love jehad’ and identified Congress MLA Arif Masood as the perpetrator. He registered a first information report (FIR) stating that Bharati was missing and that she was mentally disturbed. But, it turned out to be a case of elopement. In a video posted to refute her father’s allegations, Bharati said she left her family out of her own free will. She petitioned the Jabalpur High Court seeking security and informed the court that she was in a relationship with a 33-year-old man from another community and wanted to marry him.

In a bizarre incident in September, right-wing hooligans stormed into a Bhopal hotel’s bar where a birthday party was on, and accused members of the Muslim community present there with Hindu girls of ‘love jehad’. The fringe elements belonging to the Bajrang Dal and the Sanskriti Bachao Manch created a commotion and misbehaved with minor girls. They allegedly shot videos and uploaded them on social media as a case of love jehad. Parents of at least four minor girls registered a complaint with the Bhopal police demanding action against the miscreants. Undeterred by the complaint, the Manch maintained that hookah bars had become “dens of interfaith affairs”.

As it became public knowledge that Madhya Pradesh was joining the list of BJP-ruled States in introducing a law against ‘love jehad’, the Congress expressed its reservations against the move. Abbas Hafeez Khan, State Congress spokesperson, told Frontline over the phone from Bhopal: “The Congress is against any form of injustice. Love jehad is a term coined by the BJP without evidence to create divisions in society. We are of the view that if any violations occurred across the religious divide, strict and timely action should be taken. The law for that is already there but the BJP is failing to implement it just as it is failing in every other parameter of governance.”
Also read: Caste variant of love jehad in Tamil Nadu

Abbas Hafeez said the proposed law smacked of communal design. “It is not appropriate to communalise the law and come out with Acts that are biased. We should frame laws that would strengthen the concept of equality and justice for all.”

In what has become the BJP’s staple reaction to dissenting voices, Mishra alleged that the Congress was colluding with anti-national forces as it continued its containment policy of Muslims. “Where there is Gupkar or Afzal, you will find the Congress or Rahul Gandhi,” Mishra said. “Let them clarify first whether they are against the Bill or support it. It is the Congress that is fighting the [District Development Council] elections in Jammu and Kashmir with the Gupkar alliance, which comprises anti-national forces. Wherever there is talk of divisive politics and against the nation, you will find the Congress or Rahul Gandhi,” he said.

However, the BJP does not seem to have any answer to the central question: what is the need for a controversial new law when relevant laws aimed at curbing violence of any form are in place, irrespective of the religious denomination of the victim and the perpetrator? Take the case of the Satna rape case that came to light in September. A16-year-old girl alleged that Mohammad Atiq Mansuri had raped her successively over the past two years. It was stated that he had introduced himself to the victim on Facebook under the alias Sameer Singh. Mansuri was arrested within a few hours under the relevant Sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. The Satna police later stated that the accused was a history-sheeter who black-mailed women and amassed property fraudulently. The police said a Special Investigation Team would probe Mansuri. Interestingly, the BJP claimed the incident was a case of ‘love jehad’.
Also read: Hoax of love jehad

The BJP has so far not explained what necessitated the proposed Bill when the State already has a stringent law on these lines. .

On the basis of the recommendations of the B.S. Niyogi Committee, the Congress government in 1954 prepared the first draft of the 1968 law prohibiting religious conversion by the use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means. The government introduced the Freedom of Religion Bill in the Assembly in 1958 and 1963, but the House rejected it on both occasions. The Niyogi Committee was set up to investigate Christian missionaries’ alleged en masse conversion of backward class Hindus to Christianity.

The Freedom of Religion Act

In 1968, Madhya Pradesh became the first State to introduce and ratify what was called the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrata Adhiniyam, or Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act.

Under this Act, forceful conversion was made a cognisable offense and allurement was loosely defined as any temptation in the form of any gift or gratification either in cash or kind, and grant of any material benefit, either momentary or otherwise

The Act defined “force” as a threat or injury of any kind, including the threat of divine displeasure or social excommunication. Likewise, “fraud” represented any kind of misrepresentation or any fraudulent contrivance. The Act stipulated imprisonment of up to one year (two years if those forced to convert belonged to the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes or were minors or women) or fine of up to Rs.5,000 (Rs.10,000 in the case of conversion of minors, S.Cs/S.Ts or women) or both for the violators.

The Act stated: “Whoever converts any person from one religious faith to another either by performing himself the ceremony necessary for such conversion as a religious priest or by taking part directly or indirectly in such ceremony shall, within such period after the ceremony as may be prescribed, send an intimation to the District Magistrate of the district in which the ceremony has taken place of the fact of such conversion in such form as may be prescribed.”

Permission for conversion

The BJP government is clearly aiming to make permission for conversion mandatory, although legal luminaries aver that such a sweeping provision will not withstand judicial scrutiny. However, this is not the first time the BJP has attempted to tighten the provisions against religious conversions. In 2006, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government had sought to amend the provisions of the 1968 Swatantrata Adhiniyam Act to include a proviso that a month before the conversion ceremony, a pre-report about the purification, or sanskar, ceremony, should be sent to the District Magistrate along with information about the priest, the time and place of the ceremony, and name and address of the person who is to be converted. The Magistrate would pass on the report to the Superintendent of Police to initiate a local investigation to determine that the proposed conversion was being done on the convert’s own free will.
Also read: The myth of love jehad

Governor Balram Jakhar sought a status report from the State government on religious conversions in the previous five years. The government failed to submit any data pertaining to illegal conversions in that time period. Thereafter, the amendment Bill was forwarded to the President for approval, but the Bill was returned in 2009.

In the changed political landscape at the Centre and in the State, the new Bill is likely to get ratified. The Bill has sparked off unease among Muslims in the State who view it as another tool in the government’s armoury to repress the community and keep the Hindutva pot boiling.

Adverse narrative against Muslims

Moulvi Aliqadar, nazim of Nidausafa madrasa in Bhopal, told Frontline that“this is an extension of the adverse narrative against Muslims by the State”. He said: “With increased social mobility and modernisation, interfaith marriages have become somewhat more common than they were in the previous decades. But the unidimenesional narrative that only Hindu girls convert to Islam to marry a Muslim boy is not true. There are also cases where Muslim girls embrace Hinduism to marry a Hindu boy. Likewise, some interfaith couples do not convert and instead solemnise their marriages in a court. The BJP government is clearly cherry-picking one phenomenon to the exclusion of others because it fits well with its overall narrative of Hindus being in danger. The idea is to polarise society on religious lines and cement its own electoral prospects, and that should be apparent to everyone.”

Moulvi Aliqadar said the latest developments were adding to the frustration and insecurities prevailing in the community. He said: “There is a widespread feeling that Muslims could be targeted under any pretext. More and more young Muslims fear that they could be booked under trumped up charges and that their patriotism is always under question.”
Also read: The bogey of love jehad

Aliqadar’s apprehensions are not without substance. There have been occasions when the provisions of the Dharma Swatantrata Adhiniyam Act have been invoked to coerce members of the minority communities. In May 2017, eight Christians were booked under the Act on charges of kidnapping and forcibly converting 60 children from Jhabua district. The eight accused, six men and two women, were arrested at the Ratlam Railway Station when they were on board a train with 60 children and headed for a Bible camp in Nagpur.

The police alleged that the accused could not provide any documents regarding the identity and whereabouts of the children and termed it as a possible case of human trafficking. The police, who were alerted about the journey by a local right-wing organisation, refused to set the accused free even after the father of one of the boys in the group, said there was no foul play. In February this year, a sessions court in Ratlam acquitted all the accused.

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