On November 28, 2020, the Uttar Pradesh government in North India further entrenched ‘communalism by law’ in the state by activating the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religious Ordinance, 2020. This Ordinance prohibits conversion from one religion to another by “misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, coercion, allurement or marriage”. The stated goal of the law is to check “unlawful religious conversion” and “interfaith marriages with the sole intention of changing a girl’s religion”. It criminalises conversions in violation of the provisions of the law and punishes the guilty with a jail term of up to 10 years. The offences defined and stated in the Ordinance are cognisable and non-bailable. Many BJP-ruled states have expressed an interest to legislate similar provisions.
To this P Chidambaram, the former Indian Finance Minister, wrote that “the ‘love jihad’ law is an onslaught on choice; on freedom; on privacy; on dignity; on the equality of man and woman; and on the right to love or live together or marry.” India’s journey since the implementation of this law has shown a trend where most experts are questioning the secular fabric of the country.
The World Watch Monitor in one of its articles claimed that the leaders of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist group, has stated on national media that the RSS will make India free of Christians and Muslims by December 31, 2021. One way it intends to do this is through forced ‘re-conversions’. Hundreds of Christians were forced to reconvert to Hinduism last year through intimidation and pressure.
The article claimed that “Despite being the world’s largest democracy, with a constitution that guarantees freedom of religion and belief, such extremism is thriving in India. Hindu nationalists see Hinduism as the true religion of India, so when an Indian ‘returns’ to Hinduism, it is not seen as a ‘conversion’ from another faith, but a ‘ghar wapsi’ or ‘homecoming’: so they are exempt from the anti-conversion laws.”
The Indian media have come under serious fire for not having extensively covered the issue. Nevertheless, in recent articles, some media platforms like India Today examined the minute specifics of the law. At least 10 states have passed anti-conversion legislation in India in the past. Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Jharkhand are among these states. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the law was repealed in 2004. In Rajasthan, the anti-conversion bill passed by the state legislature was returned by the Centre. Most of these laws ban religious conversion by force or allurement. At least four states have recently said they will come up with laws against 'love jihad', which requires conversion in a marriage. In February this year, the Centre had told Parliament 'love jihad' is not defined in any of the existing laws.
The Madhya Pradesh Act was further amended in July 2020, providing that the district magistrate and the priest or organisation performing the conversion need to be informed by a person wishing to change his religion. The police would then verify the priest's credentials to ensure that this was not done by force or by seduction. Penal action provisions exist against priests/individuals who do not inform the authorities.
The Supreme Court, however, supported the laws saying, “What is freedom for one is freedom for the other in equal measure and there can, therefore, be no such thing as a fundamental right to convert any person to one’s own religion.”
Saumya Saxena, in an article published by The Wire, claims that The Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS’ recent propaganda against 'love jihad' geared against religious marriage conversion may appear as an argument that favours the Special Marriage Act (which allows inter-religious marriage without conversion). However, in fact, with or without conversion, these organisations have traditionally opposed mixed marriages.
The adoption of the Special Marriage Act is itself a tale of the suspicions of exogamy by India, its frustration with religious conversions, and remains one of the many surveillance mechanisms. The adoption of the Special Marriage Act in 1954 remains the closest legislation that can somewhat assert religious neutrality. Lok Sabha debates at the time of its enactment reveal that for many parliamentarians, the Act embedded secularism in the institution of marriage as a ‘freedom’ to love.
Couples who marry without their parents' permission mostly opt for temple-weddings, Arya Samaj weddings, or weddings after Islamic conversion. Conversion has emerged in practice as the realistic way to cohabit as a couple, albeit far from ideal, in a country where neither inter-faith, inter-caste nor living-in couples can achieve societal acceptance. While the courts have settled the issue of fraud or bigamous marriages solemnised by abuse of religious conversion, propagandists would have us believe that if it were not for the temptations of Muslim personal rule, Hindu men would remain monogamous and Hindu women would still prefer endogamy without easy options to convert. However, marriage is only one of the planks used in opposition to religious conversion.
We are again facing a similar situation in which state governments are seeking to enact restrictive legislation to ban conversion, but targeted at another religious minority. But the danger of a national law curtailing religious freedom is now very real, and judicial independence to properly guard against this is diminishing now more than ever. The law will be camouflaged as a discussion on family law, on a uniform civil code, or on marriage fraud but will be guided, like much else in this regime has been, against minorities and against freedom, says Saxena in her bold critique.
The issues with the law have caused sufficient unrest to which citizens continue to deliberate and react upon till date. A public interest petition filed very recently through advocates Devesh Saxena, Shashwat Anand and Vishesh Rajvanshi contends that the Uttar Pradesh Ordinance is both morally and constitutionally repugnant. "The aforesaid ordinance requires every religious conversion to be scrutinised and certified by the state. The very concept of forcing an individual to explain and justify a decision, which is closely personal to him/her, before an officer of the State is contrary to Constitutionalism," the plea states.
The Ordinance introduced by the UP government, the plea alleges, is to merely serve a political purpose and is motivated by communally divisive agendas which could impact societal peace and harmony. "The issue is emotive and seeks to divide communities. It is yet another way to polarise our polity and reaping electoral dividend," the petition has contended.
What remains unclear is to what extent the plea will help in tackling an Ordinance which remains backed by a majority government in UP and an overwhelming population of citizens who continue to see love and marriage as a plot laid by Muslim men. In an age where India’s secular fabric is alleged to have been shaken by its very core, this Ordinance seems to be the cherry on the communalism cake.
What remains extremely daunting is the fate of inter-religious marriages henceforth, whose battles have just become even more gruesome.
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