The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 was tabled in the Assembly on Tuesday, December 21.

A file image of Basavaraj Bommai overlayed on the image of the Karnataka Assembly
news Law Tuesday, December 21, 2021 - 19:05

Karnataka’s controversial anti-conversion Bill was tabled in the Assembly on Tuesday, December 21, amid opposition from the Congress party. The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 was cleared by the Karnataka Cabinet on Monday, December 20, and is expected to be taken up for discussion on Wednesday, December 21. 

The opposition, activists, citizens and legal experts have voiced concerns over the Bill, that aims to prohibit “unlawful conversion” from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means. A primary look at the new Karnataka Bill shows that the law is even more stringent than those introduced in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, with the minimum punishment in Karnataka being three to five years and a minimum fine of Rs 25,000 — compared to a minimum of one-year jail term and Rs 15,000 fine in Uttar Pradesh.

In addition to prohibiting conversion by or after marriage, the new Bill prohibits conversion by ‘promise of marriage’ as well. It also contains portions that were stayed by the Gujarat High Court earlier this year, with the High Court holding portions of the Gujarat law as violative of individual’s right to freedom of religion and one that presumes marriage to be a medium for the purpose of unlawful conversion.

Here is what the new anti-conversion Bill in Karnataka says, in 10 points:

What the Bill says

1. Section 3 of the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill penalises anyone who "converts or attempts 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 the promise of marriage.” Those abetting or conspiring for such conversions will also be penalised, the Bill says. 

This is in contrast to other similar laws in BJP-ruled states. Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat prohibit conversion of a person by marriage, and also hold such a marriage as void. 

The Gujarat High Court had in August 2021 stayed a similar portion of the state’s law, and had said this provision presumes that marriage is for the purposes of conversion, and it may deter many interfaith marriages where a spouse willingly wishes to convert. In Karnataka, perhaps in order to circumvent this roadblock, the Bill says that conversion on the basis of a ‘promise of marriage’ can be deemed illegal. That is, if a person decides to convert ahead of marrying their partner from a different faith, it is punishable. If anyone suspects an interfaith couple is going to get married — and files a complaint alleging there could be conversion — that complaint will also merit an investigation under this proposed law.

Who can file a complaint

2. Anybody who has been converted, or even knows a person who has been converted, can file a complaint. This includes the person’s family members, any blood relative, or a relative by marriage or adoption, or even an associate or a colleague of the person — any of them can lodge a complaint. Under Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh’s laws, only family members and relatives (parents, brother, sister or any other person related by blood, marriage or adoption) — can file a police complaint alleging forced conversion. 

3. Under the new Karnataka Bill, the burden of proof to prove that there was no ‘illegal or forced’ conversion, or a forced conversion through marriage, lies on the person who carries out the conversion, or helps such a conversion. This part is modeled on Uttar Pradesh’s law — and is one of the portions stayed in Gujarat by the High Court. The Gujarat High Court had held that this provision puts “parties validly entering into an interfaith marriage in great jeopardy,” by placing the burden of proof on them that their marriage is valid and not ‘just for conversion.’

Punishment for illegal conversions

4. Under the proposed Karnataka law, whoever is found guilty of conversion will face jail term of three to five years, and will also be liable to pay a fine of Rs 25,000. If the person who has been ‘illegally’ converted is a minor, a woman, or a person from a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe community, they face a jail term of three to 10 years and a fine of Rs 50,000. The Uttar Pradesh law has prescribed less stringent punishment. While the minimum punishment in UP is one year, in Karnataka, it is three years. While the minimum fine in UP is Rs 15,000, in Karnataka, it is Rs 25,000.

5. In case of a ‘mass conversion,’ which is defined under the law as ‘conversion of two or more people,’ the accused person can face three to ten years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1 lakh. Moreover, an appropriate court can also order compensation of upto Rs 5 lakh, which will have to be paid by the accused to the victim of conversion. 

6. A repeat offender can face a jail term of not less than five years and shall also be liable to a fine of Rs 2 lakh.

7. The Bill says that any marriage done for the sole purpose of conversion shall be declared illegal and void. 

A lengthy process to change religion

8. Persons who want to willingly convert to another religion, as well as those carrying out conversions, need to submit a declaration of the same to the District Magistrate at least 30 days in advance. The District Magistrate will then put up the declaration on the notice board of the office and invite any objections. If there are objections, the DM can order an inquiry. Officials of Revenue or Social Welfare Department will be authorised to check ‘genuine intention, purpose and cause of the proposed conversion.’

9. If the conversion is cleared by the District Magistrate, the converted person again has to send another declaration, as well a copy of their Aadhaar or any ID card to the DM, within 30 days of converting. This declaration should have the personal details of the converted person — date of birth, address, father’s or husband’s name, their previous religion, the date and place of conversion, their current religion, and details of the process of the conversion. 

10. This declaration, again, will be put up at the DM’s office and people can send in their objections. The converted person, after sending the declaration, has to appear before the District Magistrate to confirm the contents. 

Also read: Karnataka’s new anti-conversion Bill has parts that Gujarat HC said violates rights

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