10 yr jail, lengthy process to change religion: Karnataka’s draft anti-conversion Bill

The draft of the Bill, which has been modeled after a similar law in Uttar Pradesh, aims at penalising people who convert or try to convert others by ‘fraudulent means’ or by marriage.
Karnataka Assembly
Karnataka Assembly

The Karnataka government is mulling a maximum punishment of 10 years under its anti-conversion Bill — which seems to be modeled after a similar law introduced by the state of Uttar Pradesh. The draft of the Bill indicates that much like in Uttar Pradesh, this proposed law aims at penalising people who convert or try to convert others by ‘fraudulent means’ or by marriage. The draft may undergo changes, once it is placed before the state Cabinet.

According to the current draft, under the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, any person found guilty of unlawfully converting another person will face a minimum jail term of three to five years and a fine of Rs 25,000. And if the person ‘unlawfully converted’ is either a minor or a woman or belongs to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes, the punishment is more — a minimum sentence of three years and a maximum of ten years imprisonment, and Rs 50,000 fine.

In cases of ‘mass conversion’, the accused person can face three to ten years in prison and a fine of Rs 1 lakh. The law also says that an appropriate court will order the accused person to pay compensation to the “victim of conversion”, and this amount can go up to Rs 5 lakh, and must be paid by the accused over and above the fine under the law.

It is important to note that some of the provisions that the Karnataka government is aiming to introduce under its anti-conversion laws were stayed in another BJP-ruled state – Gujarat. In May 2021, the Gujarat government had also brought in an amended anti-conversion law. However, the Gujarat High Court had stayed some of the provisions in August 2021 — provisions like the one that places the burden of proof on those entering into an inter-faith marriage. The law says that the person who is the ‘convertor’ needs to prove that the marriage was not solemnised on account of any fraud, allurement or coercion. “This again puts the parties validly entering into an inter-faith marriage in great jeopardy,” the High Court had said. It further said that the Act deems to say that an inter-faith marriage itself is “presumed to be a medium for the purposes of unlawful conversion.”

The Gujarat High Court noted that the provisions go against an individual’s right to choice and liberty, granted under the Constitution of India. So, since similar provisions are included in the Karnataka Bill too, it means the law goes against rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

A lengthy process to register conversion

As per the draft Bill, in case someone wants to convert to another religion voluntarily, there is a lengthy process in place and this applies to inter-faith marriages too. First, those who want to convert need to inform the District Magistrate (DM) at least 60 days in advance. The person who will be carrying out the conversion process must give one month’s notice to the District Magistrate or the Additional District Magistrate. The DM then has to carry out an inquiry through the police to find out the ‘real intention’ of the conversion, and then give their go-ahead.

After the process of conversion is completed, the person who has converted must submit a declaration within 30 days of the conversion. The declaration needs to have the converted person’s personal details – like date of birth, address, father’s name, former religion and religion to which the person converted, etc — and the declaration needs to be submitted along with a copy of their Aadhaar card. 

After this, the person who has converted has to appear before the District Magistrate 21 days from the date of the declaration so that the District Magistrate can confirm the details mentioned in the declaration. With this, the DM has to maintain an official record of the conversion and has to inform government officials of the revenue department,  backward classes welfare department, minority welfare department, heads of educational institutions, among others, about the conversion through an official notification.

Then, the authorities will take appropriate steps to check whether the person who has converted is still eligible to “enjoy social status or receive economic benefits from the government that he was getting prior to the conversion.” This means that if a person from the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes converts to a minority religion, they could lose the benefits accorded to them by the government.

Why the law model is problematic

Many other BJP states have modeled their proposed anti-conversion laws after the Uttar Pradesh law. Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh have recently brought in laws amending the existing anti-conversion laws.

In all of these laws, the punishment is different for different genders, the burden of proof that the conversion is “valid and lawful” has been put on the partner or the ‘convertor’, and allows the family of an individual to report the conversion as unlawful. This effectively takes away from the individual’s right to choose whether they want to convert to another religion. Thus, these laws can end up in painting any inter-faith marriage, where there is a subsequent conversion, as dubious

As per the draft law in Karnataka, the burden of proof that religious conversion has not been done through force, coercion, fraudulent means or by marriage “lies on the person who has caused the conversion and where such conversion has been facilitated by any person on such person".

While the government aims to do away with ‘forced’ conversions, the draft law in its current form will not only dissuade people from inter-faith marriages, it will also give more power to family members over their children or wards’ lives. Any relative will be able to file a complaint against a particular inter-faith relationship if they are against it. The sixty days’ notice period will also allow those against the inter-faith relationship ample time to pressurise the couple to break it off. It also dents an individual’s freedom to practice the religion of their choice, which is a fundamental right.

The law also gives the government an increased say in an individual’s personal life — the District Magistrate and the police will get to decide whether a particular person’s choice to convert is ‘valid’ or not. This, again, is a violation of their fundamental right to practice the religion of their choice.

UP model for Karnataka law?

Karnataka’s proposed law seems similar to what the Uttar Pradesh anti-conversion law states. The Uttar Pradesh government introduced the Prohibition Of Unlawful Conversion Of Religion Ordinance in 2020. The ordinance criminalises people who convert or attempt to convert people from one religion to another by “use or practice of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means,” or by marriage. It also penalises people who “abet, convince or conspire such conversion.”

In fact, 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 will be Rs 25,000.

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