In 2003, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered on his election promise to prevent religious conversions in the State. He introduced the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Bill and it was passed by the State Assembly that year. While the brutal 2002 Gujarat riots were an obvious part of an agenda to polarise society, laws such as this were components of the saffron brigade’s long-term Hindutva strategy.
In this context, the issue of “love jehad”, as the State government calls it, has raised its ugly head once again. The State government amended several sections of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act in June, and one of the amendments made state permission a requirement for an inter-religious marriage . The Gujarat High Court, in its August 19 ruling on two petitions challenging the amendments, stayed the implementation of certain sections of the amended Act and thus provided relief to interfaith couples. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Gujarat has been quick to raise a bogey and extract as much political mileage from it as it can, considering that the Assembly election is due next year. The supposed danger is of “jehadi forces” attacking Hindu women.
Lawyers, minority leaders and senior members of the Christian faith say the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021, is unconstitutional and draconian. It targets Muslims, violates personal liberty and, above all, promotes a regressive patriarchy. For instance, the Act mandates that priests must take permission from the district magistrate before any religious conversion can happen. It imposes imprisonment of up to five years and hefty fines for any violation. The amendments allowed “aggrieved” family members to register a police complaint in case they did not approve of the marriage. The burden of proof was extended to the people who caused the conversion, and the offences were made cognisable and non-bailable.
Minority groups, not surprisingly, are outraged by the amendments, which activists say are as severe as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which does not allow bail in the interest of curbing anti-national activities. In July, the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind, Gujarat chapter, and Mujahid Nafees, leader of the Minorities Coordination Committee, filed separate petitions challenging some of the amended sections. Both petitions say the Act goes against Article 25 of the Constitution (freedom to practise any religion) in addition to Articles 14 (equality before the law), 19 (freedom of opinion and expression), 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) and 26 (freedom to manage religious affairs).
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Mujahid Nafees said: “Furthermore, it has little to do with conversion as the percentage of people who convert is negligible. This is a dangerous political game, which the BJP plays expertly. Muslims constitute approximately 9.7 per cent of the total population in Gujarat. How can we be a threat? The BJP says this law is required to protect their [Hindus’] daughters and religion. When they make up 88 per cent of the State’s population, even in a hundred years we will not become the dominant community. This kind of legislation is harmful. It increases their might and we know their modus operandi well—to meddle with the mood in the State before an election.”
The 130-page petition filed by Mujahid Nafees states that the law criminalises the institution of marriage, which is an inherently legal and most basic fundamental right guaranteed to every person. Both petitions challenge Sections 3, 3A, 4, 4A to 4C, 5, 6, and 6A of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021. Section 3 says conversion as a result of allurement, involving fraudulent means, and in pursuit of monetary/material benefits, better lifestyle and divine blessing will be considered an offence. Section 3A allows any aggrieved relative even by marriage to lodge a first information report (FIR); Section 4 says whoever contravenes Section 3 can be punished by imprisonment up to three years and a fine of Rs.50,000. Section 4A prescribes an increased punishment of imprisonment in the range of three to five years and a fine of Rs.3 lakh for unlawful conversion. Section 4B declares marriages by unlawful conversion void in the family court. Section 4C deals with organisations doing the conversion. Section 5 mandates that religious priests must take permission from the district magistrate for converting any person from one religion to another. Section 6 demands prior sanction of the district magistrate or a sub-divisional magistrate for starting prosecution against the accused. And Section 6A puts the burden of proof on the accused “who has caused the conversion”.
Mujahid Nafees’ petition says: “This bogey of ‘love jehad’ was created into a movement primarily by certain vested interests who evidently stood to benefit from pursuing such a communal agenda. The term love jehad as a phenomenon singles out one kind of conversion by vilifying one community as conspiring to convert young girls and, by implication, Islam as a religion whose co-religionists allegedly increase the strength of their own religion by getting people from other religions converted to their own religion.”
The Gujarat High Court in an interim order on August 19 stayed the challenged sections. In a hearing on August 26, Advocate General Kamal Trivedi argued before the court that Section 5 is not related to marriages and is only related to seeking permission. The court stayed Section 5 and seven other sections and said: “[These sections] shall not operate merely because a marriage is solemnised by a person of one religion with a person of another religion without force or by allurement or by fraudulent means and such marriages cannot be termed as marriages for the purposes of unlawful conversion. The above interim order is provided only on the lines of the arguments made by the learned Advocate General Mr Trivedi and to protect the parties of interfaith marriage from being unnecessarily harassed.”
Also read: The myth of love jehad
A lawyer familiar with the issue says Section 5 is considered the “core” of the entire Act and a stay on it is effectively a stay on the entire piece of legislation. It means that anyone converting, whether for a marriage or otherwise, does not need to seek the state’s permission.
Father Cedric Prakash, a human rights activist who has been part of minority groups opposing this law, said: “In some ways this is a better strategy. Deconstruct the law, put a stay on the critical clauses and render it a powerless tool. Why should the state or anyone else interfere in matters which are personal and private and clearly violative of Article 21: the right to privacy?”
“Protect Hindu girls”
Chief Minister Vijay Rupani reacted to the High Court order saying the State would take the case to the Supreme Court as his government was committed to stopping forcible conversion through marriage. He told the media that “jehadi forces” were a real threat and the State government was firm in its resolve to protect Hindu girls who were made to elope and later forced to undergo religious conversion. He said the law against love jehad was brought in this context. The State government had argued that the law did not prohibit all interfaith marriages but only the ones based on fraud and coercion.
But the BJP’s real agenda was exposed when Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel brazenly told the media: “Let me tell something and you can video-record this if you want: those talking about the Constitution, secularism, law, etc, will do so only till Hindus are in the majority in this country, and the day the number of Hindus decreases, and of others increases, there will be no secularism, no Lok Sabha, no Constitution. Everything will be flung in the air and buried. Nothing will remain.” Additionally, Patel asked why only a particular minority challenged the law.
Gujarat’s Minister of State for Home Pradipsinh Jadeja, while piloting the amendments in the Assembly claimed: “There is international finance being channelised to lure Hindu girls into marriage and then their conversion.” Following the High Court order, he said, “Love jehad is a menace and the government will take this to the Supreme Court if needed.”
Jignesh Mevani, an independent Member of the Legislative Assembly, said: “With top BJP political functionaries perpetuating these kind of communal issues, it is clear they are gearing up for the election. Unfortunately, if the Congress, which is the largest opposition party, opposes the Act, it will backfire on it politically. Only a tiny segment of the population understands this danger to secularism and the idea of India. For the masses, conversion is a real threat. No political party wants to take that risk.” Mevani himself has opposed the Act on several platforms.
Mevani says it is obvious the larger Hindutva agenda is once again at play. “We must understand that for them their hegemony should remain intact. Inter-caste and interfaith marriages need to be prevented at all cost as the caste system should not be tampered with in order to keep the upper castes in power,” he says.
Also read: Caste variant of love jehad in Tamil Nadu
In 2006, the State government attempted to amend the Act by clubbing Jains and Buddhists with Hindus. The powerful Jain community took exception to this and said that while Jains were not primarily concerned with the conversion Bill, Jainism had a distinct identity. The community had no desire to be included in the so-called Hindu fold, said Jain leaders in a case they filed in 2006. The amendment was withdrawn in 2008.
Gujarat was the first BJP-ruled State to introduce the love jehad law in 2003. More recently, other BJP-ruled States, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, have approved similar laws. Karnataka and Haryana are in the process of passing legislation as well.
Demographics provided by the State say Gujarat’s population is divided into the following religious communities: Hindus, 88.6 per cent; Muslims, 9.7 per cent; Jains, 1 per cent; Christians, 0.1 per cent; Sikhs, 0.05 per cent; Buddhists and others (tribes etc.), 0.03 per cent. As the petitioner Mujahid Nafees says, going by these figures, the fear of a minority becoming a dominant group, seems an impossibility.