Himachal House passes Bill against ‘mass conversion’
The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, was passed by a voice vote even as Opposition members demanded a discussion by a select committee
The Himachal Pradesh legislative assembly passed a bill on Saturday to amend the state’s 2019 anti-conversion law, making it more stringent by forbidding “mass conversion” and enhancing maximum punishment to up to 10 years in jail.
The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, was passed by a voice vote even as Opposition members demanded the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government to refer it to a select committee.
The bill, which proposes to amend the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019, also forbids a convert from availing “any benefit” of parents’ religion or caste. The bill bans “mass conversion” — described as two or more people converting at the same time — through force or allurement, and proposes to increase the punishment for illegal conversions to a maximum of 10 years from seven years.
Chief minister Jai Ram Thakur, who tabled the bill on Friday, said the 2019 law did not have a provision to curb mass conversion and so a provision to this effect was being made.
Thakur further said that followers of some religions were focusing on tribal areas of the state to convert Scheduled Castes and cited examples of alleged mass conversion in Rohru and Rampur in Shimla district and Banjar in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh.
Through the bill, the words “and to the effect that he shall not take any benefit of his parent religion or caste after conversion” have been inserted after the words “fraudulent means” in section 7 (1) of the 2019 Act. It also stipulates that complaints made under the Act will be investigated by a police officer not below the rank of a sub-inspector and the offences will be tried by a sessions court.
Objecting to certain provisions, Congress legislators Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu and Jagat Singh Negi and CPI (M) MLA Rakesh Singha demanded that the bill be sent to a select committee for examination.
Raising reservations about the provisions that barred a convert from taking any benefit of his parent’s religion or caste, Sukhu demanded an amendment in Section 7. However, the government insisted the provision was is in line with the Constitution.
Negi, the Congress MLA from Kinnaur, said even if the government makes the 2019 law stringent, the conversion “will not stop until the mentality is changed”. He further claimed that depriving Scheduled Castes who convert to other religions of the benefit of reservation was against the spirit of the Constitution.
Singha, the CPI(M) MLA, also demanded that the bill be referred to a select committee as the matter is under judicial scrutiny.
State’s parliamentary affairs minister Suresh Bhardwaj, however, said that the rights of the tribal people will not change. Under the bill, a self-declaration is required that the converted person will not take any benefit of their parents’ religion, the minister added.
The 2019 Act prohibited conversion from one religion to another by force, undue influence, coercion, inducement or any fraudulent means or by marriage and for matters connected therewith. However, there was no provision to curb mass conversion. The Act was notified on December 21, 2020, 15 months after it was passed in the assembly. The Act had in turn replaced a 2006 law — brought in by the Virbhadra Singh-led Congress government — which prescribed lesser punishments.
As per the amendment in Section 2 of the principal Act, now the clause (fa) has been added that says “mass conversion means a conversion where two or more than two persons are converted at the same time”.
Amendment in Section 4 states that “if a person marries someone by concealing his religion in such a manner that another person believes that his religion is truly the one professed by him shall be punished with a minimum imprisonment of not less than three years and maximum imprisonment of 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine which shall not be less than ₹50,000, but which may extend to ₹1 lakh”.
It has also been proposed that whosoever contravenes the provisions of Section 3 in respect of mass conversion “shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which shall not be less than five years, but which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine which shall not be less than ₹1 lakh, but which may extend to ₹1.50 lakh”.
In case of a second or subsequent offense mentioned in this Section, the “term of imprisonment shall not be less than seven years, but may extend to 10 years and shall also be liable to a fine which shall not be less than ₹1.50 lakh and which may extend to ₹2 lakh”.
The ruling BJP has been a vocal supporter of anti-conversion laws and many states ruled by the party have introduced similar legislations. The move also comes ahead of the assembly elections in the hill state scheduled for later this year.