Karnataka assembly clears contentious conversion bill
The Karnataka legislative assembly on Thursday passed the contentious anti-conversion bill, amid Opposition protests. The legislation prohibits conversion from one religion to another by “misrepresentation, force, fraud, allurement or marriage”.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, commonly referred to as the anti-conversion bill, was introduced to bring in “public order” and that it was the Congress-led government in 2016 that had first drafted it.
However, the Congress called the bill “anti-human, anti-constitutional and anti-poor”.
“This government could not solve economic and social issues in the last 2.5 years; (it) did not do anything for farmers, women or the poor. There are pressing issues but they (BJP) are bringing in such emotionally charged bills to deflect attention away from more important matters,” leader of the opposition in the assembly Siddaramaiah said on Thursday.
The BJP presented documents to substantiate its claim that the Congress had first drafted the bill and had even asked for it to be presented in the cabinet in 2016, though it was never brought before it.
Siddaramaiah alleged that the Rashtra Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was behind the bill. Chief minister Basavaraj Bommai said, “RSS is committed to anti-conversion, it is not a hidden secret... Why did the Congress government in 2016 initiate the bill during its tenure following the RSS’s policy? It is because Congress CM in Himachal Pradesh Virbhadra Singh had brought a similar law. You are a party to this bill.”
Bommai said the bill is both constitutional and legal, and aimed at getting rid of the menace of religious conversion. “It is for a healthy society.... Congress is indulging in vote bank politics by opposing it now, their double standard is clear today.”
The bill was passed by a voice vote, even as Congress members were protesting from the well of the House, demanding continuation of the debate on the bill that began on Thursday morning.
The BJP said it has made “improvements” to the draft by the Congress five years ago, and included marriage and laying the burden of proof on those accused of converting person. The bill will now be placed in the state Legislative Council, where the BJP still does not have a majority.
The Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, states: “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any other person from one religion to another by use or practice of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by any of these means or by promise of marriage, nor shall any person abet or conspire such conversion: Provided that if any person reconverts to his immediate previous religion the same shall not be deemed to be a conversion under this Act.”
The bill also states that anyone willing to convert will have to submit an application to the DC (district collector) who will scrutinise the application, interview the applicant to ascertain if the conversion is not by force or allurement. If the application is found to be genuine, then other departments will be informed to ensure the converting person loses benefits from his existing caste or religion and be included into the category into which the said person is converting.
It also places restrictions on marriages done with the “sole purpose of unlawful conversion”, which lends to the belief that a separate legislation to amend the special marriage act might also be included in this law itself.
Karnataka home minister Araga Jnanendra, who piloted the bill, said eight states have passed or were implementing such a law, and Karnataka would become the ninth one to do so.
Modelled around similar legislations brought in various BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, the anti-conversion bill was passed at a time when there has been a rise in attacks on members of the Christian community in the state, whom several BJP legislators have openly decried as the main culprits behind a “conversion racket”.
To be sure, the laws in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have been challenged in the courts.
The bill also proposes an imprisonment from three to five years with a fine of ₹25,000, while for violation of provisions with respect to minors, women, SC/ST (Scheduled caste/scheduled tribe), offenders will face imprisonment from three to ten years and a fine of not less than ₹50,000. The bill also makes provisions for the accused to pay up to ₹5 lakh as compensation to those who were made to convert, and with regards to cases of mass conversion the bill proposes three-10 years jail term and a fine of up to ₹1 lakh.
“What is the objection if we give more protection to SC/ST, women and minors? We know their condition... We need to provide them extra protection,” Bommai said.
(Need expert/independent observer quotes)