Bhopal: Though the Madhya Pradesh government’s decision to pass a law against interfaith marriages based on ‘forced conversion’ has kicked up a nationwide controversy, the state has been wrestling with its ‘forced conversion’ obsession since 1968.
Madhya Pradesh was the first state to pass a law against forced religious conversions for any purpose including marriage with the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantrata Adhiniyam or Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, passes that year.
Over the last 20 years or so, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has attempted several times to tighten this law. Now, as the Nikita Tomar murder case continues to grab headlines with her family members alleging that the 21-year-old had been shot dead by a Muslim man whom she had refused to marry, BJP-led state governments have said they will pass laws to prohibit interfaith marriages involving forced conversion. In MP, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government believes it has found an appropriate situation to justify making the provisions of the 1968 law stricter.
The first draft of the 1968 law had been prepared by the then Congress government in 1954, on the recommendations of the B.S. Niyogi Committee. The state government had set up the committee to look into allegations that “Christian missionaries were creating a state within a state and converting backward class Hindus as well as tribals en mass.”
The committee submitted its report within months, observing that the “philanthropic activities of Christian missionaries are a mask for proselytisation.” On the recommendations of the Niyogi committee, the state government prepared a draft and twice proposed the law in the assembly, in 1958 and 1963. But the state assembly rejected the Freedom of Religion Bills on both occasions.
However, as soon as the first non-Congress government formed in the state with the support of rebel Congress leader Vijaya Raje Scindia, the Bill was passed and implemented.
According to the Freedom of Religion Act, 1968, religious conversion by the use of “force” or “allurement” or by “fraudulent means” is a cognisable offence. The violator will be punished with imprisonment of up to one year. The imprisonment will be two years if those being forced to convert are from the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, minors or women.
The new draft being proposed, however, will provide rigorous imprisonment of up to five years for forced marriage, seduction and forced conversion. Provisions will also be made to declare forced marriages null and void.
The 1968 law has provisions to inform the district collector after a conversion, but does not state that prior permission is required. Permission is now being made mandatory in the proposed Bill, according to the latest draft discussed by state home minister Narottam Mishra on November 17.
“If anyone wants to covert, the person and the religious leader carrying out the conversion have to apply before the collector a month in advance,” Mishra had said. He had added that any collaborators would be prosecuted in the same way as the main accused on the complaint of the parents and siblings of the person who had been converted.
BJP MLA and pro tem speaker of the state assembly Rameshwar Sharma also claimed that the state government planned to add provisions to scrap the reservation or quota of women of Scheduled Castes or Tribes if they changed their faith and married Muslims or Christians.
However, neither Narottam Mishra nor officials of the home department officials shared statistics to prove the existence of or a surge in what they call ‘love jihad’ despite several questions from journalists looking for data.
Anti-conversion law is BJP’s pet issue
The BJP in Madhya Pradesh has time and again tried to strengthen the 1968 law. When the party returned to power in 2003 after trouncing the 10-year-old Digvijay Singh-led Congress government, it aimed to toughen the existing law, stating that as it existed, it was inadequate to check conversions by force or allurement.
In 2006, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government sought to amend the 1968 Bill. The draft of the Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2006, included provisions for one year’s imprisonment and a fine against priests or organisations that performed conversions without following due procedures as well as a fine of up to Rs 1,000 for persons who failed to inform the authorities about their intentions to adopt another religion.
The draft also had provisions to seek a pre-report on purification (sanskar) and submit it before the district magistrate (DM) with details of the priest and name and address of the person who wished to convert. The DM was to pass on the information to the police superintendent who would ensure ‘voluntary’ conversion after conducting an investigation.
When the draft amendment Bill reached the then state governor, Balram Jakhar, he asked the government to submit the status of religious conversions that had taken place in the state over the previous five years. When the government failed to submit any supporting data to prove that illegal conversions had taken place in the state, the then solicitor general of India, G.E. Vahanvati, said the Bill was unconstitutional.
Later, the Bill was forwarded to the president of India for approval. Three years after it was passed in the state assembly in 2009, the president’s office returned (rejected) the Bill.
Months before the assembly elections of 2013, the BJP government invoked the issue again and passed the Bill. The new Bill stipulated a jail term of up to three years or a fine up to Rs 50,000, or both for conversion using force, allurement or any other fraudulent means. If the converted person was a minor or woman or a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Tribe, the jail term would extend up to four years and the fine would go up to Rs 1 lakh.
However, owing to widespread protests by faith-based organisations, secular groups and different political parties in Madhya Pradesh, it has remained pending at the president’s office. Hence, the unamended 1968 Act is still in effect.
Rishav Raj Singh is a journalism student at Makhanlal Chaturvedi University and reports from Madhya Pradesh.