MP govt’s bill against forced conversions exempts re-conversions

The Madhya Pradesh Cabinet on Saturday approved a proposed law to regulate inter-faith marriages in the state that provides for 10 year jail for ‘forcing’ women, minors, and people from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe to undergo religious conversion, while exempting reconversion to parental religion from its purview.

The proposed law called the Madhya Pradesh Dharmik Swatantrata (Freedom of Religion) Bill 2020 says ‘Paitrik Dharm me Wapsi’ will not be treated as conversion. “Under this legislation, re-conversion to the ancestral religion will not be treated as conversion,” said the draft law, defining ancestral religion as the religion of the father of the person at the time of his birth.

Giving the reason for this clause, Madhya Pradesh home minister, Nirottam Mishra, said re-conversion will not be a punishable offence under this law because it is more a realisation of a mistake than a crime.

The proposed legislation will replace the 1968 Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, and is stringent then the similar law enforced by the Uttar Pradesh government through an Ordinance.

The UP law does not provide for parental property rights to the children of inter-faith marriage, monthly maintenance and Rs 50,000 fine for inter-faith marriage without the permission of the district magistrate. In UP, the fine amount is Rs 25,000. The jail term in the two laws are the same, shows an analysis of the proposed legislations of the two neighbouring states.

Mishra said, “The bill seeks to prohibit religious conversions or an attempt of conversion by means of misrepresentation, allurement, threat, undue influence, coercion, marriage, and any other fraudulent means. The conspiracy and (the act of) abetting a person for conversion has also been prohibited.”

Mishra said the bill has a provision of punishment from one to 10 years of imprisonment and a minimum fine of Rs 1 lakh for conversions.

According to draft of the bill approved, “The forced conversion of woman, minor, scheduled castes and scheduled tribe will attract 2-10 years imprisonment and a minimum fine of Rs 50,000. Mass forced conversion will attract 5-10 years of jail term and fine upto to Rs 1 lakh. Burden of proof will lie on the accused.”

“Forceful conversions and marriages will be a cognizable offence and be non-bailable. There will be a provision for declaring inter-faith forceful marriages and forced conversions null and void. Before conversion, the person and religious gurus have to inform the district magistrate at least 60 days prior to the scheduled date of marriage. The violation of this rule will attract 3-5 years of jail and a minimum fine of Rs 50,000,” according to the approved draft of the proposed bill.

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Mishra said, “MP government has come up with the toughest rule against forced conversion in India. With providing justice to the victim of forced conversion, the proposed legislation will ensure her rights too.”

Retired high court judge, AK Gohil, said, “The bill doesn’t have any provision to deal with past cases of forced conversions and there is no time limit for lodging a complaint with the police after the marriage. Like the Dowry Prohibition Act, which has a time limit of lodging an FIR up to seven years of marriage, this proposed act should also mention the time limit of lodging an FIR.”

MP Congress Committee spokesperson Narendra Saluja said, “We welcome this bill but the provisions under this bill serve the BJP agenda instead of helping women. The BJP is trying to create a rift in the society to win elections.”

Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind state president Hazi Haroon said, “From chief minister to BJP MLAs, all the BJP leaders are using the bill as a step against ‘Love-Jihad’. BJP leaders are targeting Muslim community with this bill. If Love-Jihad is really a big issue and a crime, then they should have mentioned this in the bill. But the state government has not mentioned it as they know that the bill can be easily challenged in the court of law.”

Raising concern over reconversions, social activist, Indira Iyengar, said, “Now, the violent incidents against the members of the Christian community will increase in the name of reconversion. In tribal areas, the saffron organisation members are already targeting converted Christians. Now, they will get freehand to threaten people to lodge fake complaints of forced conversion and also force tribals to reconvert into Hindu religion.”

MP BJP spokesperson, Rajnesh Agrawal, said, “Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan clearly said this bill is a part of Beti Bachao Abhiyan of the MP government. The bill is against forced conversions and not against conversions. People are free to change their religion by just informing the district magistrate. The Congress leaders are nowadays working to misguide people to win their lost political ground. But citizens of MP are intelligent enough to understand right and wrong.”

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