Supreme Court to examine laws against unlawful conversion in UP, Uttarakhand
The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to examine the two contentious state laws passed by Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, prohibiting conversion from one religion to another by marriage.
Issuing notice on two separate petitions challenging the laws, a three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde, refused to order stay.
Soon after the Court order, the Muslim organization Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind filed an application for intervention raising serious concerns over the two laws being aimed to target Muslim youth. This application will come up along with the two petitions after four weeks.
At first, the top court hesitated to issue notice as it was aware about the pendency of separate petitions before the Allahabad High Court and the Uttarakhand High Court challenging the Uttar Pradesh ordinance titled “Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020” and the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act.
“Only the society in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand will be affected by this law. Why should the petitioners not approach the respective High Courts,” observed CJI Bobde.
Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a NGO run by social activist Teesta Setalvad, which filed one of the petitions challenging the two laws, informed the top court through senior advocate CU Singh that the issue is arising in other states as well. “The state of Himachal Pradesh has re-enacted a similar law (HP Freedom of Religion Act) in 2019 after its earlier law prohibiting conversion from one faith to another was struck down by the Himachal Pradesh High Court in 2012. Now the new law has roped in marriage by conversion as a ground to prosecute persons. We have multiple states,” it said.
The other petition, filed by two lawyers Vishal Thakre and Abhay Singh Yadav and a law researcher Pranvesh, also asserted that the problem needs to be addressed by the top court as the “UP Ordinance and Uttarakhand Act are against the public policy and society at large and violates basic structure of the Constitution”. Similar laws were being contemplated by state governments of Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana and Assam, the petition added.
The bench agreed to issue notice on the two petitions seeking responses from the Centre on whether the laws in question violated fundamental right to practise one’s religion, guaranteed under Article 25 of the Constitution among other rights protected under Article 14 (right to equality), 15 (right against discrimination) and 21 (right to dignity).
The CJP petition said, “The Ordinance and the Act impinge upon this right (under Article 25) by imposing unreasonable and discriminatory restrictions on it by mandating that the administration be informed of such intention and a probe be launched in such a personal and intimate exercise of one’s right.”
The CJP lawyer urged for a stay as Singh said, “Rampaging mobs are moving around lifting people from marriage ceremonies. Before marrying, individuals have to register their names and the burden is on them to prove that the conversion is not for marriage. If someone does convert for marriage, he faces punishment up to 10 years.”
He was referring to the provisions of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020 that outlaws religious conversions by marriage, coercion, deceit or enticement. The law in force since November 24 last year prescribes a jail term varying between one to five years, in addition to fines of up to Rs 15,000 for those convicted under the law. The jail term goes up to 10 years and fine up to Rs 25,000 for conversions of women belonging to scheduled caste or scheduled tribe communities or who are minors.
The law was promulgated about a month after Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath vowed to end “love jihad”, a term used by right-wing activists to describe marital relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women.
The Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind cited this statement given by the UP chief minister to raise the issue of fundamental rights of the Muslim youth, who are being “targeted and demonised by using the Impugned Ordinance” in its application. “The practice of converting religion just for the sake of marriage might at worst be termed as ‘ethically objectionable’ or ‘immoral’, however, the same cannot be criminalised,” Jamiat stated through its lawyer Ejaz Maqbool.
Both petitions too voiced concerns that the ordinance can become a potent tool in the hands of bad elements of the society to falsely implicate anyone.
“Daily there are reports of people being picked up by force. These provisions are obnoxious particularly when the SC in 2018 held that the state cannot interfere with an individual’s right to marry as held in Shafin Jahan case,” Singh argued. Asking individuals to validate their conversion for the purpose of marriage or otherwise violates their right to privacy, he added.
The bench, also comprising Justice’s AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, was not convinced to order stay. It said, “Can a law be stayed if prosecution is oppressive or false.”