ON February 8, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Haryana approved the draft Haryana Prevention of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Bill, 2022, thereby joining the list of BJP-ruled States that have enacted similar laws. It was, in that sense, not an unexpected move. On March 4, when the Bill was introduced in the State Assembly, it met with stiff resistance from opposition parties, with one member tearing up a copy of the Bill. The draft Bill, like the anti-conversion laws in other BJP-ruled States such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, claims to address forcible conversions though the government has not placed any concrete figures of the scale of conversion other than making a general statement that religious conversions were taking place. The hidden agenda of harassing minorities could not have been more apparent.
The statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill quotes the Constitution about religious freedom being guaranteed under Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28. The objective of this right “is to adopt matter of faith as per his will”. Citizens were free to preach, practise and propagate any religion of their choice and the state did not have a religion. It adds: “However, the individual right to freedom of conscience and religion cannot be extended to construe a collective right to proselytise; for the right to religious freedom belongs equally to the person converting and the individual sought to be converted.” The text of the Statement of Objects and Reasons has some grammatical errors with some incomplete sentences. It states that “still there have been umpteen cases of conversion, both mass and individual. Obviously, such incidents have been hotly debated, more so in a religious society, such as ours. The presence of pseudo-social organisations with a hidden agenda to convert the vulnerable sections of other religions. There have been instances where gullible people have been converted by offering allurement or under undue influence. Some have been forced to covert to other religions.” It does not substantiate or quantify the “umpteen instances”.
Referring to “instances”in a general sense, it states that “in recent past, several instances came in notice that with an agenda to increase strength of their own religion, by getting people from other religions converted to their own religion, people do marry girls of other religion by misrepresentation of their own religion and after getting married to such girls, they are forced to convert to their own religion.” It mentions that several instances “had come to notice” where people converted themselves to the other religion for the purpose of marriage to the girl of that religion and after marriage they “got that girl converted into their original religion”. There are no prizes for guessing the “original religion” being referred to. Such incidents, the Statement of Objects and Reasons reasoned, infringed the freedom of religion of persons so converted but also militated against the socio-religious fabric of society.
The Bill, therefore, was intended to “prohibit religious conversions effected through misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage or for marriage by making it an offence”. It provides for greater punishment when the person involved is a minor, a woman or a member of a Scheduled Caste (S.C.) or Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) and places the burden of proof on the accused that misrepresentation, undue influence, force, coercion and allurement, among other things, were not resorted to. Every offence would be cognisable, non-bailable and triable by a Sessions Court. The Sessions Court can also try any other offence arising out of the incident, not related to the offence, and charge the accused under any law. Under the Bill, the punishment for contravening the provisions is a jail term of one year extending to a maximum five years plus a fine not exceeding Rs.1 lakh.
Also read: The myth of love jehad
Allurement, under the Bill, implied any act of temptation in the form of a gift or gratification or material benefits in cash, kind, employment, education in a school run by a religious body, better lifestyle and a promise of divine pleasure. The Bill gives wide scope to people other than the person directly affected to complain under its provisions. For instance, a court is empowered to take cognisance on the basis of a police report or a complaint by the aggrieved or by his parents or siblings or by any other person who is related by blood, marriage, adoption, guardianship or custodianship. If a person concealed his religion with an intention to marry, that marriage will be declared null and void, while any offspring from that marriage will be considered legitimate and the maintenance for such a child will be granted by the court. If a person desires by her own choice or will to be converted, she will be required to give advance notice before the conversion to the District Magistrate. The priest officiating the conversion is also expected to give prior notice to the District Magistrate. The District Magistrate will then display the notice in a conspicuous place, giving 30 days’ time for any objections to be raised. The District Magistrate will have six months to issue a certificate if satisfied that the conversion is not an outcome of coercion, allurement, or other. Anyone aggrieved by the order can file an appeal within 30 days of the issuance of the order.
At present, there is no Central legislation governing conversions. The Constitution confers the freedom to profess, propagate and practise religion, allowing all religions to manage their own affairs subject to public order, morality and health. Several States have, from time to time, enacted such laws, but never has there been as much clamour to check conversions as in recent times. The bogey of ‘love jehad’—that is the fear that men from the minority community are entrapping unsuspecting young Hindu women and marrying them in order to get them converted, with the objective of increasing the numbers of those adhering to Islam—is one excuse being used to justify enacting draconian anti-conversion laws. There has been no substantive basis to prove that instances of conversion are rising although it has become the proverbial bogeyman, just like population explosion, to blame, harass and intimidate members of the minority community in various ways, including targeting young couples to prevent them from entering into inter-faith alliances.
According to the non-profit organisation PRS Legislative Research, several private members’ Bills were introduced to regulate conversions but were never passed by Parliament. Like the Haryana law, the Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh anti-conversion laws have a provision to declare a marriage null and void if it was done for the sole purpose of unlawful conversion. The laws of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are similar to the Haryana Bill in that they allow any relative of the alleged victim of conversion to file a police complaint. They also prohibit persons from abetting, conspiring and convincing persons for conversion. In religions other than Hinduism where proselytisation is an integral part of the faith, the clauses in the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh Acts are clearly in violation of constitutional freedoms as they assume that propagating a religion will involve “convincing”, which under some anti-conversion laws is a criminal act.
The ordinances passed by Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh lay down punishment for conversion of minors, women, and people belonging to the S.C. and S.T. categories. The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, was promulgated on November 7, 2020. The Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Ordinance was promulgated in January 2021. On December 23, 2021, Karnataka passed the Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill.
The Karnataka legislation went a step further to declare that if a person converted, she will lose reservation and other benefits attached to her religion of origin. As in the other anti-conversion laws, the Haryana law makes offences, non-bailable and cognisable, punishable with both imprisonment and fines. In Assam, which is also ruled by the BJP, Chief Minister Hemanta Biswa Sarma described the State’s anti-conversion Bill as a “love jehad” law.
Since 2017, the year the Supreme Court upheld the Right to Privacy of every individual as a fundamental right in what is famously known as the Justice K.S. Puttuswamy judgment, five BJP-ruled States have enacted anti-conversion laws or amended their existing laws to check conversion. Whether the anti-conversion laws will meet judicial scrutiny at the highest court of the land is another matter.
According to the 2011 Census, Muslims and Sikhs account for 7.03 per cent and 4.91 per cent of Haryana’s population, while Christians comprise 0.2 per cent. Some 87.46 per cent follow Hinduism. Yet, in Haryana, ever since the Narendra Modi-led BJP government came to power at the Centre, with aggressive Hindutva at the core and crux of its politics, attacks on Muslim and Christian minorities have seen an increase. The BJP formed the government in Haryana on its own for the first time in 2014, while in 2019 it cobbled together the numbers in a post-election alliance.
Attacks on minorities
The attacks on minorities have grown ever since in a State that had never witnessed the kind of communal tensions seen in other north Indian States. The horrific killing in 2017 of Junaid, a teenager, by communally charged commuters in a Delhi-Mathura train near Ballabhgarh in Haryana was a reflection of the extent to which the poison of communalism had seeped through. Four of the six accused in the case were given bail after the police withdrew the charges of rioting and unlawful assembly, among others. In 2018, the Punjab and Haryana High Court granted bail to a fifth accused, ruling that there was no evidence of a premeditated plan or intent to disrupt harmony and that the dispute was over occupying a seat in the train and hurling of caste slurs. Only the main accused remains behind bars.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there were more than two dozen attacks on minorities in the State with the majority of cases reported from Panipat, according to media reports citing police sources. In December 2021, there were two incidents involving attacks on Christians, which had never happened before. In Ambala, a statue was vandalised in a church. In a second incident, a carnival organised in a private school was attacked. In the same month, a mob entered a church in Rohtak during a regular prayer meeting alleging that conversion was taking place there. This was despite the fact that the police had not received complaints about any such conversion.
In December 2021, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar declared that the offering of namaz in public places would not be tolerated. This was in response to an ongoing controversy raked up by self-styled custodians of the Hindu faith in Gururgram. They had prevented Muslims from offering prayers in public areas even though the administration had designated these areas, as many as 20 of them, for prayers. Here was an instance of a government that was violating its own orders.
Addressing mediapersons, Khattar said such programmes should not be held in the open as it was leading to controversies and confrontations. In 2018, when protests began against the public offering of Friday prayers, he had observed that prayers should be held only on Waqf-held properties. The same year, the administration designated 37 places of worship, which was later brought down to 20.
Gurugram adjoins the Mewat belt, which has a significant population of Meo Muslims. There is a sizeable working-class Muslim population in Gurugram, not only from Haryana but other States as well. Most of them are either self-employed or work in the industrial belt of the district. As mosques were not located in industrial areas, on Fridays, Muslims would head to the nearest park and offer their prayers. This was not an issue before 2018. In 2021, there were repeated attempts to disrupt the Friday prayers offered in the open with the police watching.
The anti-conversion Bill is basically an added feature to the continuing attacks on minorities in a State that had been relatively peaceful. The recent attacks on churches and on Christians, though random in scale, are a portent of things to come. The failure of the ruling party to condemn such attacks increases the concern for the safety and security of minority communities as a whole.