After the Gujarat Carnage of 2002, in the run-up to the Gujarat State Assembly elections, Narendra Modi (as Chief Minister of Gujarat) in a campaign spewing with venom and hate, promised to bring an ‘anti-conversion’ law in the State. The promise was clearly to denigrate the minorities of the State particularly the Muslims and the Christians; and in doing so, to polarise as much of the population as possible. This he succeeded in doing with finesse, in the typical fascist style of a Sanghi: divide and rule. The denigration of the minorities paid not only rich dividends at the hustings but also catapulted him to becoming the Prime Minister of the country.
True to his promise, on March 26, 2003, (the day Haren Pandya the ‘bête noire’ of Modi was assassinated in Ahmedabad) the Gujarat Assembly passed the ‘Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003’. It took full five years till 2008 for the Government to introduce the rules that are needed to govern the implementation of the law. At that time, it was clearly the most draconian law of the country; the Constitutional validity of this law was challenged by the Gujarat United Christian Forum for Human Rights (GUCFHR) in 2009 in the High Court of Gujarat, with Senior Counsel, the late Girish Patel (the doyen of the Human Rights movement in Gujarat as the advocate on record)); the High Court sent a notice to the Gujarat Government but the Government never responded. Finally, on February 23, 2015, the petitioners withdrew the original petition with a prayer that a new petition would soon be filed substantiating the petition with more data. The law still stands in Gujarat and it is selectively used to harass and intimidate minorities. Ironically even as recently as 26 December 2020, twelve Christian tribal couples in the Dangs, apparently ‘reconverted’ to Hinduism in a ‘ghar wapsi’ programme – as reported by some of the godi-media. The so-called law clearly does not apply to them!
In February 2006, in keeping with the draconian and anti-Constitutional provisions of the law, at a Shabri Kumbh programme in the Dangs (supported by the Gujarat Government), Modi warned the Christians “It is my constitutional duty to prevent conversions. Our Constitution disapproves of them, and yet some people turn a blind eye.” Morari Bapu accused the Christians of bringing in plane-loads of missionaries from the Vatican “who come here to carry out conversion activities but when we organise a ‘ghar wapsi’ why should it be termed as bad?” Both Modi and Morari Bapu clearly endorsed the ‘ghar wapsi’ programmes which were part of that programme.
The point of debate here is not whether one has the right ‘to convert another’; but whether a citizen of India, has the right to choose a religion of one’s choice; this is not only guaranteed in the Constitution of India but which is also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (Art.18) On November 26, 1949, free India gave to herself a Constitution securing to all her citizens justice, liberty, equality and fraternity; the fundamental right that ‘all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion’ is a corner stone of a country with a secular and pluralistic fabric.
On June 11, 2003, eminent jurist and former Solicitor General of India, Mr. Soli Sorabjee addressing a public gathering on the Gujarat’s anti-conversion law, at the Nehru Centre in London, said, “The Gujarat legislation goes one step further and provides that the person who is converted has also to seek permission from the District Magistrate about the fact of such conversion. Failure to comply with these statutory provisions invites severe punishment of imprisonment and fine. These provisions are objectionable. They intrude on a person’s right to privacy. One’s religious belief is essentially a private matter as is conversion from one’s religion to another. It is a result of deep-seated inner convictions. The State laws have the effect of deterring genuine conversions and impairing the substance of religious freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. These laws have further shaken the confidence of the minority communities and accentuated their sense of insecurity.”
So, when first Uttar Pradesh (UP) and then Madhya Pradesh promulgated their anti-Constitutional and anti -people anti-conversion laws one should not be unduly surprised! Both Governments and both laws are part of a sinister agenda hell-bent on foisting the fascist ‘Hindutva’ ideology by 2025, the year the ‘Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’ (RSS) celebrates its centenary year! It was not without reason that Sardar Vallabhai Patel, the then Home Minister of India, banned the RSS following the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Even a cursory study of the RSS will reveal that none of them fought for India’s independence (in fact, they kowtowed to the British colonialists), they shown an abhorrence to the Constitution and even a disdain to the national flag, anthem, emblem and motto. Their core competency is in half-truths, lies and fekuisms- as is blatantly evident. All the key functionaries of the BJP today are RSS cadres from Modi to Shah, from Adityanath to Chouhan! So, the recent UP and MP laws are all in the scheme of things which had its genesis in 1925 and the beginning of its fruition under Modi in Gujarat 2002!
The ‘Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance 2020’ was signed by the UP Governor, in November 2020; within a month of its enactment the UP police had already lodged 16 FIRs, booked 86 people and arrested 54 of them! On 26 December, the Madhya Pradesh cabinet approved the ‘Dharma Swatantrya (Religious Freedom) Bill 2020’. Both laws have very stringent provisions and are clearly aimed at targeting mixed marriages particularly if the woman is Hindu and married to a man belonging to a minority religion!
The Sangh ‘bhakhts’ and godi-fied media have been using a derogative term ‘love jihad’; even some Christian officials from Kerala have fallen into the trap and use the term. The reason for them doing so is fairly clear: some of these officials have been accused of serious financial, sexual and property irregularities; so, hoping that the Sanghis may bail them out when the truth is revealed – a fairly easy way out is to sing with them the ‘love jihad’ tune – though in factuality they are able to cite just a couple of fairly dubious examples – of a Muslim man marrying a Christian girl ‘by force’ and making her to convert to Islam. ‘Love jihad’ is a term not recognised by the Centre. In February 2020, the Home Ministry told parliament "love jihad is not defined in law" and no such case had been reported by central agencies. However, it has not stopped a number of BJP-ruled states, besides UP and MP, including Karnataka, Gujarat and Haryana, from insisting they will push through ‘anti-love jihad’ legislation.
Ironically enough, the examples and arrests done so far by the UP officialdom is one big lie and a travesty of justice. There is for example the case of Rashid and Pinki from Mordabad which has fortunately found mention in a sizeable section of the mainstream media. The Indian Express (20 December 2020) highlights this incident :22-year-old Rashid and his 25-year-old brother, Saleem, were arrested, to be released only two weeks later when Rashid’s wife, Pinki, gave testimony that she had married him willingly, without any compulsion.
Rashid and Pinki, married in July 2020, before the promulgation of any ordinance on the interfaith marriage, were on their way to have their marriage registered on 5 December, when they were accosted by alleged Bajrang Dal men, who accused Rashid of “love jihad”, and took them to the police. Saleem was with them at the time. While Rashid and Saleem were arrested, Pinki was sent to a shelter home. Pinki repeatedly told the media, the police and the court right then that she had married Rashid willingly and wanted to live with her husband’s family. The vigilantes who had accosted them brought Pinki’s family to the police station. What is inexcusable is that the police remained mute as the vigilantes harassed and interrogated the innocent couple. Because of the harassment, Pinki suffered a miscarriage. Rashid is reported to have said, “I told the Bajrang Dal men my wife is pregnant, but they hurled abuses at us. They dragged us to a police station and called my in-laws. We were then locked up and sent to a quarantine centre. I wasn’t able to meet my wife.”
On 28 December, the Allahabad High Court once again ruled in favour of an interfaith couple, underlining that the woman is an adult who "wants to live with her husband", had the "right to live life on her terms (and) is free to move as per her choice without any restriction or hindrance being created by (a) third party". Simultaneously, the High Court also quashed an FIR registered against her husband in September in Uttar Pradesh's Etah district, and directed police to provide security for the couple till they returned home. The FIR was filed after the woman's father alleged his daughter had been kidnapped and forced into marriage.
The two-member bench, consisting of Justices Pankaj Naqvi and Vivek Agarwal, spoke to the woman Shikha and verified she married Salman of her own free will, as well as confirming she had reached the age of majority; her school certificate listed her date of birth as October 4, 1999.The court also criticised the Chief Judicial Magistrate of the district for handing custody of Shikha to a Child Welfare Committee that, in turn, gave custody back to her parents "without any application of mind and against her wish."
There have been other instances when these anti-conversion laws have been criticised by several legal luminaires, Constitutional experts and human rights defenders. Former Supreme Court judge, Justice Madan B Lokur as termed it “unconstitutional”. Justice AP Shah, a former Chairman of the Law Commission and also a former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, minced no words in a recent interview to the NDTV saying, “the new anti-conversion law in Uttar Pradesh was regressive in nature as it reflected the ‘philosophy of a khap panchayat’, and was aimed at perpetuating the subjugation of women, the ordinance, was capable of great public mischief and must be struck down immediately”.
Speaking about the constitutionality of the law, Shah said, several provisions of the ordinance “seriously violate” the fundamental right to practice religion as guaranteed by Article 25 of the Constitution, and “strike at the very root” of right to life and liberty guaranteed by Article 25. “In any criminal case [where] conversion is presumed to be illegal; the burden of proof is usually on the prosecution. In this ordinance, every religious conversion is presumed to be illegal. The burden of proof lies on the person accused of illegal conversion to prove that it is not illegal. So, there is a presumption of guilt. The offence is cognisable. It is non-bailable and the police can arrest anyone.” Shah expressed his disbelief that a law like this was passed by a government “in a country governed by the rule of law and a constitution”. Shah said that the ordinance “has already taken its toll, with large-scale arrest of people and stories of separation. It is clear that the ordinance must be struck down immediately, it certainly must not be permitted to be enacted into a statute. We need to stop the destruction of these freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.”
On 29 December, in a hard-hitting letter to the UP-Chief Minister, more than one hundred of the former civil servants of the country said that “the Uttar Pradesh government's controversial anti-conversion ordinance has transformed the state into the epicentre of politics of hate, division and bigotry". The letter signed by illustrious former officials like National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Adviser to the Prime Minister TKA Nair. They demanded that “the illegal ordinance be withdrawn forthwith", the signatories also said all politicians, including the Chief Minister, “need to re-educate yourselves about the Constitution which you... have sworn to uphold... UP, once known as the cradle of the Ganga-Jamuna civilisation, has become the epicentre of the politics of hate, division and bigotry, and institutions of governance are now steeped in communal poison, a series of heinous atrocities committed by your administration against young Indians across Uttar Pradesh... Indians who are simply seeking to live their lives as free citizens of a free country." They added "These atrocities, regardless of indignation of Indians devoted to rule of law, continue unabated. The anti-conversion ordinance... is being used as a stick to victimise especially those Indian men who are Muslim and women who dare to exercise their freedom of choice.". Their letter flagged multiple instances of minorities being targeted.
The UP and MP Governments have violated human rights; they seem to care a hoot to what the Constitution or the Courts say. It will not be long before, not only Gujarat, UP, MP are epicentres of hate, but the whole country is swamped into this ideology. There are important questions to ask, ““As a free independent adult citizen of this country am I free to fall in love and marry the person of my choice?” “Can I embrace the religion of my choice or for that matter become an agnostic or an atheist?” “What has the Government or a political party or for that matter any official of any religion got to do with a purely private and personal matter?” “Just as the Supreme Court did a suo motu on Prashant Bhushans tweets on some past and present Supreme Court judges including the CJI posing on the motorbike of a Sanghi, can the apex court not do a suo motu on these anti- Constitutional laws?”
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore exhorts us “into that heaven of freedom my Father let my country awake!” As citizens of our beloved country, we must rise now and stop the fascist agenda - before it's too late!
*(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights & peace activist/writer Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )