‘Mass Conversion’ Ban, 10 Years in Prison: Ahead of HP Polls, BJP Gov Passes Tougher Bill
The BJP government led by Jairam Thakur has tabled the Himachal Pradesh Religious Freedom Amendment Act 2019,
during the ongoing monsoon session of the Assembly on Friday.
The Himachal Pradesh Religious Freedom (Amendment) Bill 2022, passed unanimously by the House, inserts into the 2019 law a reference to “mass conversion”, which is described as two or more people converting at the same time.
The government claimed it had brought in the amended legislation to make the Anti-Conversion Act 2019 stricter, which prohibits conversion from one religion to another through coercion, misrepresentation or fraudulent means while stipulating a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment for the crime.
Participating in the debate on the bill in the House, CM Thakur said, “I respect all religions. Despite the fact that religion should be a matter of faith and trust, some of our fellow citizens are the target of false promises and coercion. We have known a period of religious conversions. If someone wants to convert of his own free will, there is freedom.
Referring to the 2019 law which was passed to amend a similar 2006 law to make the penalty against conversion tougher, Thakur said his government has now amended it to give it more teeth which “the result will be visible in the times to come”.
He said the provisions of the amended law were “unique to Himachal Pradesh as no other state has such a law on forced and mass conversions”.
Opposition parties argued that the amended law would contravene constitutional provisions for persons belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). The only CPI(M) MPP, Rakesh Singha, told the House that these vulnerable communities will be the victims of the new law.
Thakur however said, “We have the utmost respect for Scheduled Castes. We have referred to the provisions of the Constitution. In all the provisions, there is no specific targeting of a community. It focuses only on the fact that if a person voluntarily converts to another religion, he must declare it beforehand.
Section 3 of the Liberty Act states: “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, directly or otherwise, another person from one religion to another by resorting to false declaration, force, influence undue, coercion, inducement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage.” The amended legislation states that “further understood that anyone who contravenes the provisions of Section 3 relating to mass conversion shall be punished with a term of imprisonment which may not be less than five years, but which may be extended up to ten years”.
The person accused of carrying out mass conversions will also be liable to a fine of up to Rs 1.5 lakh. If a person is found guilty of a recidivism of the same nature, the quantum of imprisonment may be increased to a minimum of seven years and a maximum of ten years.
The Amendment Bill further provides that if a person conceals his religion by marrying a person of another religion shall be punished with a term of imprisonment which shall not be less than three years, but which may be up to at ten years old. The person will also be liable to a fine which will not be less than Rs 50,000 and can also extend to Rs 1 lakh.
The 2019 law provides that a person who voluntarily converts to another religion must notify the District Magistrate’s Office one month in advance. Any breach of this would be considered a punishable offence. The priest making the religious conversion will also have to declare his religion in advance, the law specifies. An addition to the clause has been added in the new legislation, which states that anyone who makes a false statement or continues to benefit from his religion or his original caste even after his conversion will be punished with at least two years or extended to up to five years in prison.
Previously, the Deputy Minister would authorize an investigation into allegations of conversions. Under the amended bill, a sub-inspector level officer will be authorized to conduct an investigation in the conversion case. The offense under this Act is not bailable and the accused will be tried in the Court of Session, it says.
The main opposition Congress, while supporting the amended legislation in principle, slammed the BJP for “opportunism”. “Congress is the party that introduced an anti-conversion bill in Himachal Pradesh in 2006 (during the government of Virbhadra Singh), which came into force in 2007. BJP is taking advantage of it just before the elections,” said party leader RS Bali.