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Article 25 to 28 of the Constitution guarantees the Freedom of Religion to all the citizens. It gives free will to people to profess, propagate and practise religion; it allows the religious sections to establish and manage their own institution in regard with the religion; people are not forced to pay tax for the maintenance of any religious section and no religious instructions should be given in any state funded or aided institutions. There was no central legislature restricting and regulating law for religious conversion. Since 1954, there were multiple times Private Member Bills were introduced regarding the regulation of religious conversion which were not approved by the Parliament.
Recently Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 which came to regulate the religious conversion was approved by the Madhya Pradesh Cabinet. This provides unlawful conversions through marriage followed by the punishments which is up to 10 years imprisonment and one lakh fine. This Bill is very much similar to the notified ordinance of Uttar Pradesh government on unlawful conversions i.e. Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020. This Bill was introduced after Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand introduce their laws against anti-conversion, becoming the third State to make laws.
In this article we will analyse the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 and discuss the aim of the Bill. It will contain the procedure for legal conversion, types of conversions which are prohibited, the action that is taken against the unlawful conversions, effects on marriage in case of religious conversion, inheritance and maintenance for the women and children out of unlawful conversion and punishments under the Bill.
Anti-Conversion Laws In India
The need for an anti-conversion law was raised in various levels. In parliament issue of national anti-conversion law was raised. Research paper of US Library of Congress (LOC) stated that during colonial period anti-conversions laws were first introduced by princely states. These states were under Hindu royal families and enacted the laws to conserve the identity of Hindus from British missionaries.
After India’s independence numerous anti-conversion bills were introduced in the parliament but not a single was enacted. In 1979, The Freedom of Religion Bill was first introduced in Parliament. This bill was to restrain inter-religious conversion but without political support it was not passed.
In 2015, it was stated by the Union Law Ministry that law made against forced and illegal conversion is not a national subject but the state subject. Thus, state has power to make law and order under the Constitution.
Many states enacted laws regarding “Freedom of Religion” to prevent religious conversion through fraud, force or illegal practices. These states are Odisha (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Chhattisgarh (2000 & 2006), Gujarat (2003), Himanchal Pradesh (2006 & 2019), Jharkhand (2017) & Uttarakhand (2018). In 2019 the Himanchal Pradesh and Uttarakhand passed legislations that made the marriage void, if done on the basis of unlawful conversion. Subsequently Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan followed the same and passed the legislations accordingly. However, in case of Tamil Nadu the bill was protested by the Christian minorities and was repealed, whereas in Rajasthan the bill was not given President’s and Governor’s assent. 
In the end of 2019, Uttar Pradesh Law Commission decided to enact a new bill to regulate the rising cases of illegal religious conversion. The Uttar Pradesh government promulgated the Ordinance in 2020. Madhya Pradesh government also took steps to control illegal religious conversion by promulgating the Ordinance in January 2021.
Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021
The Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Ordinance, 2020 was introduce and approved by Madhya Pradesh Cabinet. The ordinance was promulgated on 7th January 2021. The existing law on anti-conversion i.e. The Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam, 1968 was replaced by this ordinance. The Ordinance does not include any reconversion to parental religion. Parental religion means the religion of the father at the time of child’s birth.
On 9th January 2021, the state governor Anandiben Patel gave assent to the Ordinance which gives punishments to unlawful religious conversions includes the forceful, fraudulent and inducement in marriage. The initial stage to enact the new Bill was now taken into consideration. The members of the house can suggest any amendments or study the Bill for future action.
The Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra on 1st March 2021 introduced the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion bill, 2021 in the assembly. Within one month of Ordinance coming into force 23 cases where registered and Bhopal Division has 7 cases which is the highest number of cases in the whole state followed by Indore (5 cases), Jabalpur and Rewa (4 cases each) and Gwalior (3 cases).
Religious conversion is a procedure in which one person renounces his religion to acquire other religion. The ordinance provides the procedure for the person to undertake religious conversion and prohibits some conversions which are unlawful, punishable under it. It extends to the entire State of Madhya Pradesh. Unlawful conversions include conversion through allurement, coercion, conversion, force, fraudulent, undue influence and other fraudulent means. All this unlawful conversions are declared null and void. This Bill has introduced against the marriage done by fraudulent means mentioned under section 3 of the statute.
The increasing case of “Love jihad” in India has forced the government to introduce the laws against this. The main aim of this Bill is to protect the daughters and sisters trapped in it. “Love jihad” means Muslim man marrying Hindu woman and converting them to Islam by unlawful means.
Analysis of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021
Section 1 states name, extend and when it will come into force. This is extended to whole state of Madhya Pradesh and after notification is done in the Official Gazette.
Section 2 defines various terms like allurement, coercion, conversion, force, fraudulent and undue influence.
Parental religion is the new term defined under this section means the religion of the father at the time of the child’s birth.
Whenever the term government is used in this statute, it represents the Government of Madhya Pradesh.
Religious priest is the term which means doing all the religion related work including the ceremony of the religious conversion of the person.
Section 3 provides prohibition of unlawful religious conversion. In this if a person is converting under allurement, threat or force, coercion or marriage, misrepresentation or undue influence or other fraudulent means, through abetment or conspired to then the conversion will null and void.
Section 4 talks about the written complaint which should be filed by the person who is converted or victim of conversion, victim parents or siblings, anybody related by blood, adoption or marriage, and also includes guardianship or custodianship, provided with the leave of the court. Written complaint filed only by the above mentioned people will be inquired or investigated by the police officer.
Section 5 states the punishment for contravention of section 3. Here if the conversion is done with respect to the terms in section 3 then the accused is liable for the imprisonment for 1 to 5 years and fine charged is minimum twenty five thousand.
Proviso of the section 5 states the following:-
Whenever there is contravention against the minor, women or the Schedule Caste or Schedule Tribe the punishment increases where imprisonment is for 2 to 10 years and fine charged is minimum fifty thousand.
When there one person who wants to marry another person of any other religion then his or her, and willingly keeps his or her religion secret, that the other persons truly believes that the religion of the person is same performed by him or her. Then the person is liable of imprisonment for 3 to 10 years and fine charged is minimum fifty thousand.
Whoever is responsible for the mass conversion is liable of imprisonment for 5 to 10 years and fine charged is minimum one lakh.
In case of second or repeated offence given in this section committed will be punished with imprisonment for 5 to 10 years and fine provided.
When more than two individuals are converted at a time, this is called as mass conversion.
Section 6 specifically talks about when marriage is executed in contravention of section 3 then it deemed to be null and void.
Section 7 talks about the jurisdiction of the court. The petition filed by the people mention under section 4 has the right to present the case before the family court or any court having the jurisdiction to try family matters. The limits should be the place where the marriage was solemnized or respondent residing during presentation of petition or either party of the marriage together last resided or the petitioner on the date on which presentation of petition happens resides.
Section 8 gives inheritance right to the child born out of the marriage which is in contravention of section 3. The child is deemed legitimate. Such child’s succession of property is governed by the law of the father only. If the child is born from a marriage in contravention of section 6 and the court having the jurisdiction under section 7 have declared it null and void then there is no right to property of the father is given.
Section 9 provides maintenance to the woman whose marriage is declared null and void under section 7 and the child born from that marriage as mentioned in Chapter IX of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973.
Section 10 states the procedure for the conversions. If a person wishes to convert should give 60 days’ advance declaration form to the District Magistrate with statement that the conversion of the person is with consent and without any fraudulent means mentioned under section 3 (allurement, threat or force, coercion or marriage, misrepresentation or undue influence). The religious priest or persons organising the conversion should give prior notice of 60 days to the District Magistrate. After receiving the notice from the person willing and the priest or person organising the conversion District Magistrate should accept as prescribed in the Bill. Contravention done by the priest or person organising the conversion are punished with imprisonment foe 3 to 5 years and minimum fine of fifty thousand. Sanction from District Magistrate should be taken by the court before taking the offence in cognizance.
Section 11 gives punishment in case of violation of the provisions when done by the institution or organisation. The punishment of the person is as per section 5. Registration done by them is found guilty of any offence then they rescinded by the competent authority.
Section 12 talks about the burden of the proof. Here the burden of proof is reversed and is on accused to proof that there was no fraudulent means mentioned under section 3 (allurement, threat or force, coercion or marriage, misrepresentation or undue influence) is involved in the victim conversion.
Section 13 states that the offences committed in contravention of the provisions under the Bill are cognizable, non-bailable and triable by the Court of Session. Also the court has the power to try the offence other than given under the Bill and is offence under Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 during the trial.
Section 14 talks about the police officer who is investigating the offence registered as per section 4 requirement should not be less than the rank of Sub-inspector of police.
Section 15 gives government power to remove the difficulties. The difficulties caused when implementing the provisions then the government make changes by publishing the order in the Official Gazette as it think necessary. Proviso of this section allows the changes only for two years from the date of the commencement. Also the orders made should be placed before the State Legislature.
Section 16 gives government power to make rules. The rules and regulation made by the state government should be notified and published in the Official Gazette to implement the provisions. After the publication in the Official Gazette only the rules and regulation will come into effect.
Section 17 states that the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam, 1968 and provisions under it is repealed.
From the article discussed above it can be concluded that in India State has power to make law and order under Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. Thus, State makes law and order to regulate anti-conversion laws within their State boundaries. There are States already having laws on anti-conversion laws but the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh recent Bills have seeks to penalise conversions on the basis of marriage. State of Madhya Pradesh is one of the states to bring proper legislation for the regulations of anti-conversion laws which have updated punishments suitable in contemporary times. And have replaced the existing law that is the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam, 1968. The punishment under Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion bill, 2021 extends to 10 years and a minimum fine of one lakh. The Bill also includes provisions related to inheritance and maintenance rights; procedure to convert; mentioned unlawful conversions and the burden of proof is reserved as it lies on accused. The main purpose of the Bill as we discussed in the article was to protect women from “Love jihad”. There was a recent case where the missionary school principal was alleged by the teacher that she was harassed and forced to convert by her. There are many debates questioning the need of the Bill when already the Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantra Adhiniyam, 1968 was existing which regulate the anti-conversion laws. The Madhya Pradesh State Home Minister Narottam Mishra in reply to debate on passing the Bill said that there were 23 cases already registered under the Ordinance passed in January 2021. The Bill was passed by voice vote. Meanwhile the central government led by Narendra Modi, last year updated the Parliament that no cases have arrived in any central agency about “Love Jihad”. In reply to this State Home Minister expressed that “We are not against love, but are against Jihad”. Further he added that they are against the types of love which affect the sentiments and make sisters and daughters to suffer in the end. The Bill was opposed by the Dr. Govind Singh (Former Parliamentary Affairs Minister and Senior Congress MLA) by stating that in view with existing laws, The Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code there was no need of this Bill, since enough provisions are regulating the unlawful religious conversions. He also stated that the Madhya Pradesh Bill was passed on similar provisions as in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. This was to ensure plaudits from Central Home Minister Amit Shah. Heena Kanware (State Assembly’s former Deputy Speaker and Congress MLA) also raised question about the need for the Bill when there was already laws related to anti-conversion were existing. She also questioned whether any survey was taken in the State for the considerate need of the Bill. Congress veteran also alleged that the Bill violates Article 21 & 25 of the Constitution which provides the person freedom of life and liberty and freedom to choose his or her religion with free will respectively.
Author: Shreya Biswas, Maharashtra National Law University, Aurangabad
Editor: Kanishka Vaish, Senior Editor, LexLife India.