Amir Ullah Khan and Nahia Hussain
Anti-conversion laws are seen across several countries such as Sri Lanka and Algeria and are not limited to a pluralist India. Laws to check religious conversions are not new even in India. Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu passed laws against forcible conversions in the 1990s and early 2000s. However, only recently have the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, incorporated the conversions taking place for marriage in the mandate of their respective laws. Introduction of marriage in the purview of anti-conversion laws is resonant with Hindutva politics and the growing spate of intolerance.
The prohibition of unlawful conversion through an ordinance introduced by the UP government seeks to check religious conversions. The ordinance proposes punitive provisions for organisations and individuals, coercing conversions with the lure marriage or some other form of deceit. Individuals entering into inter-faith marriages will face the scrutiny of the district magistrate, to prove the element of consent in the act of conversion. The ordinance invalidates marriages solemnised solely with the aim for conversion and makes the act of forced conversion a non-bailable offence. The bill applies to all religions.
A glaring problem with this new narrative about love marriages is that on one hand, it seems to be replacing the citizenship debate that was the election plank last year. On the other hand, this law against love marriages is assuming that women are gullible and do not have a mind of their own. In a stage of the country’s development where the argument has always been to empower women and encourage them to make difficult decisions on career growth, late marriages or even family planning. Its bringing back a patriarchal mindset that believes that it’s the men who must decide for their siblings.
The prevailing communally polarising climate and the clamour against alleged ‘Love Jihad’ has made the inclusion of marriage in an anti-conversion law a subject of debate and controversy. Given the lack of official numbers on love jihad cases, the urgent commissioning of such a law by way of an ordinance during a raging pandemic is worrying. Moreover, a special probe launched by the UP Police to investigate alleged accusations of forced conversions of Hindu women, revealed that most inter-faith romance cases were consensual.
The law leaves discretion at the hands of a bureaucrat; hence can be a potential source of misuse. The law also mandates the burden of proof, shall lie upon the defendant, making individuals vulnerable to undue harassment at the hands of an official. Interpretation of conversion among different religious groups is often fluid and can lead to ambiguity in proving whether a conversion is real or not. Such large discretion given to public officers or to the police can only be dangerous and will tend to be used selectively
The ordinance dampens the spirit of previously progressive judgements while trampling on constitutional freedoms. The Supreme Court in the Hadiya case 2018 reaffirmed the right of individuals to choose a religion and a life partner of their own choice. The Allahabad High Court in Salamat Ansari-Priyanka Kharwar case observed the right of citizens to choose a partner and to live with a person of choice as a part of the fundamental right to life and liberty. The fate of inter-faith marriages cannot be left at the mercy of law enforcement agencies.
The continuation of this ordinance not only will impinge the constitutional rights to life and freedom of religion but also dent the secular ethos of the country. The law also seems to be directed to garner populist sentiments with conversion politics, a more straightforward approach to stem religious conversions by marriage would have been revisiting the special marriages act. The act facilitates civil partnerships without requiring religious conversions by either party. The act also solves the problem of consent, as individuals wishing to enter into a matrimonial alliance must give a written declaration stating the intent to marry. The notice, along with personal details of the couple, is displayed and open for scrutiny. The Special Marriages Act (SMA) needs to be looked at with the intent of providing security and privacy to individuals, entering into a union. The SMA has been a cause of harassment for couples, given the openness of the procedure and personal data. Reducing the waiting time for solemnising such a communion would perhaps make the law more approachable for citizens.
The unlawful conversion bill is a step down from the strides made by higher courts in liberalising laws. Decriminalising 377, the ban on triple talaq and the abrogation of the adultery law have all been radically liberal attempts at societal reform. This anti-conversion act will have a chilling effect on the spirit of inter-faith marriages. In a vibrant socio-religious climate such as that of India, the ordinance wreaks of parochialism. Coercive conversions and allegations of love jihad are treated as a law and order problem, with penal provisions as remedies. The failure to collect data and understand the underlying causes behind such cases renders the implementation and efficacy of the law weak and superficial. Systemic oppression of the vulnerable, endemic poverty and legal lacunae allow space for forced conversions. Unless the underlying causes see corrective measures, justice shall elude the victims of coercive conversions regardless of their religion. A law which hampers the legalisation of inter-faith marriages will only maximise the ground for exploitation.
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Amir Ullah Khan and Nahia Hussainare researchers at the Centre for Development Policy and Practice based in Hyderabad.