ALTHOUGH conversion is not banned in Madhya Pradesh, according to the provisions of the Freedom of Religion Act in the State, the decision to allow conversion rests solely with the administration. This is in contravention of the Constitution’s Article 25 (1) that guarantees the right to “freely profess, practice and propagate religion”. It also goes against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Convention on Elimination of Racial Discrimination, all of which India has signed.
Apart from Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Arunachal Pradesh too have similar Acts. When these laws were enacted in Odisha and Madhya Pradesh, they were challenged in court. Matters eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1977, which in a landmark ruling (Stanislaus vs State of Madhya Pradesh) held that conversion, per se, was not a fundamental right under Article 25 and could be regulated by the state.
The Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhinivam, or the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968, prohibits religious conversion by the use of “force” or “allurement” or by “fraudulent means”. Conversion is a cognizable offense under the Act. Allurement has been loosely defined as any temptation in the form of any gift or gratification either in cash or kind, grant of any material benefit, either momentary or otherwise. Force means threat of injury of any kind, including the threat of divine displeasure or social excommunication.
Fraud here includes misrepresentation or any fraudulent contrivance. Violations are punishable with imprisonment up to one year (two years if those being forced to convert are Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, minors or women) or fine up to Rs.5,000 (Rs.10,000 in case of minors, S.C./S.T., or women) or both.
While the Act states that the district authorities have to be informed after the conversion, nowhere does it state the requirement of prior permission.
It states: “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.”
In 2006, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh sought to amend the provisions of the Act to make it more stringent. The new provisions stated that a month before such a ceremony is to take place, a pre-report about purification (sanskar) has to be submitted before the District Magistrate with details of the priest, kind of ceremony, date, time, place, name and address of the person who wishes to convert.
The District Magistrate has to pass on the information to the Police Superintendent who in turn is to find out through local investigation if any objections are there with regard to the proposed religious conversion.
The then Governor Balram Jakhar asked the government to submit the status of religious conversions in the previous five years in the State. It showed that no illegal conversions had taken place. The then Solicitor General G.E. Vahanvati termed the Bill as unconstitutional. The Bill was forwarded to the President of India for approval and it was returned from the President’s Office in 2009.
It was again taken up in 2013 and passed in the State Assembly after a brief discussion amidst a walkout by Congress MLAs. Its controversial provisions stated that anyone who broke the law would have to face a jail term of up to four years and a fine of Rs.1 lakh. Owing to widespread protests by faith-based organisations, secular outfits and different political parties, it was sent to the President’s Office again, where it is now pending. This means that the 1968 Act is still in place.
“This makes the arrests in Shivpuri invalid and illegal. For any arrest to take place, there is need for an investigation; it cannot be impromptu,” says John Dayal, member, National Integration Council, and former President of the All India Catholic Union. “The Madhya Pradesh law is being used to harass and intimidate.”
“Do we need laws to ban conversions? We have laws to punish those who indulge in force, fraud and allurement. What we need is to distinguish between voluntary conversion and forced ones. Ghar wapsi is a shrewd name for forcible conversions. So what we need is the political and moral will to promote freedom of religion and punish the guilty, who use illegal means to achieve the change of faith. The so-called “Freedom of Religion” Bills are there not to provide freedom of conscience but to curb the same by legal means,” says the writer and activist Ram Puniyani.