We, The People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, rings some bells. While nothing can stain the diversity of customs and cultures that embrace India, the Hindu nationalism agenda has been much in the news since the BJP has taken charge. While some leaders prefer to keep it under the blanket, many outrightly boast of the same. One among them is Yogi Adityanath, and his latest stunt is the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religious Ordinance.
Prohibition of religious conversion laws is not novel to new India. They have existed since the Raj, and many states like Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, etc. have them today. But the Uttar Pradesh law, passed on the 27th November 2020, goes a step ahead. It renders conversion illegal, but with an added layer of senseless provisions and brutal policing. The law states that conversion through force, misrepresentation, undue influence, fraud, marriage, and allurement is prohibited, and anyone who converts must follow a set procedure. A new point of contention here is marriage. Conversion for marriage and marriage for the conversion is both not allowed. The convertee (person who converts his/her religion) can potentially be sentenced to a jail term of 6 months – 3 years, with a fine of Rs. 10000 and the converter (the person who carries out the conversion of the victim) can be imprisoned for 1-5 years accompanied with an Rs. 25000 penalty.
The process that needs to be followed to make the conversion legal is cumbersome, to say the least. A form needs to be filled out by the converter, and a 60-day advanced declaration needs to be sent to the District Magistrate. That means to convert, you need to start the process at least 2 months in advance. This is followed by a police inquiry that is carried out to check the intention, purpose, and cause of the conversion. Anything even remotely shady - to note here is that the government is also at liberty to define what is shady - will be subject to scrutiny. Now, the convertee has to submit a declaration, and the District Magistrate publicly, yes publicly, exhibits a copy of the same till the date the conversion stands confirmed. Given the religious enmity that prevails and the need to keep things low key, this only makes matters worse. Several religious groups are known to not only be on the lookout for such declarations but also create problems, to put it generously. The converted person now must meet the DM, 21 days after sending the declaration to 'confirm' the contents of the same. The need to repeatedly reconfirm is perplexing.
The Special Marriage Act
Well, the advocates of the law say, why change faith if two people love each other so much? Why not marry under the Special Marriage Act? True, people can very well choose to do this, given the law was passed to do away with the hindrances of the different personal laws of different religions. But, marrying under the act has its own nuances. Again, a public notice needs to be submitted for 30 days, and the DM then invites objections to the proposed marriage. Yes, the bride and groom do not have objections, but if someone else has warm welcome. However, a recent development has entered the fray. In response to a petition filed by a couple, the Allahabad High Court has made it optional for the couple to submit a public notice and allow the invitation of objections by the general public. This, of course, will only apply to Uttar Pradesh (surprisingly) as of now and is a step in the right direction. But, even after this, a major problem lies unsolved. Many times, it is the police officers, who are required to facilitate inter-faith marriages, who leak the information of such a marriage. This acts as a magnet for harassment from orthodox locals and right-wing groups.
Thus, seen from a common man's perspective, the new ordinance tries to ensure no conversion (which should ideally be left to the individual’s choice purely), while the Special Marriage Act attempts to complicate interfaith marriages. Combined, they can be lethal.
Where it all goes wrong
First and foremost, the burden of proof. The assumption of guilt is taken as given, which means that if you have converted, it is illegal. The onus of proving that it's not lies with the converter. Even if the convertee says that it has been found through their consent, the State does not deem it enough.
Next, room for intrusion and intervention. The law throws extreme power in the hands of people against the practice. Families, relatives, and neighbors are often the complainers, without any evidence, and that turns a normal marriage onto its head. Alerting a Hindutva organization is often enough. Yogi's outfit, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, now with a negligible presence, earlier worked to check on such love affairs. In Moradabad, a woman was recently harassed by the Bajrang Dal while trying to get her marriage registered. Thus, through informants, the aim is to build a surveillance network to avoid any sorts of conversions and interfaith marriages.
Many things remain in the grey area. The law was passed on an 'emergency' basis, which means no approval of the assembly. What was the need? No data provided by the government on any harm from inter-faith marriages. The word 'allurement' in the law can mean several things that the law has mentioned, one of them is providing a gift. If you gift a Quran to someone, he/she reads it converts to Islam, you could potentially become the offender. Another of them is 'divine displeasure'. What this refers to can only be answered by Yogi Ji's troops. Also, reconversion to the same religion doesn't attract any offense. Why? Can that not be forced? Or is it that the direction will only be in the way the government is thinking?
Quite wrongly, the offense is cognizable and non-bailable. Making things easier, the very active UP Police can arrest anyone without a warrant, and one cannot get bail too.
Finally, as we complete the entire spiral in the article, the law is an attack on what we started with. The Constitution of India. It is the fundamental right of an Indian citizen that he/she can follow any religion of their choice, and the state cannot intervene. It has no jurisdiction to dictate and influence people over religious affairs, and this ordinance does exactly that.
To be honest, this doesn't come as a big surprise to those who've been following the moves of the UP leadership. Furtherance of one religion and targeting a minority has been the agenda. Under the draconian law, 91 people have been booked and 54 have been arrested, and believably, many of them are Muslims. India currently ranks 94th in the Human Freedom Index 2019, which uses parameters like religious freedom, human rights, and the space for dissent. With so many communal issues springing up like CAA NRC, Ram Mandir, the unification of Hindi, and much more, harmony is taking a hit and the long revered diversity and pluralism of India's mainland is being forgotten. The law, attacking the right to freedom, the right to practice any religion, and the right to privacy, only aggravated fears and invites a condescending environment of the majority community taking pride in matters that it should not. Thus, to go further up the table, it's time that the saffron party sets its priorities right in the world's largest democracy, and sets an example to the world on how growth is achieved with inclusion and brotherhood.
Sarthak Agarwal (firstname.lastname@example.org)