Decoding Gujarat’s Draconian New Anti-Conversion Law

·4-min read

Gujarat’s new “Love Jihad” law will come into force on Wednesday, 15 June. The new amendment to the state’s Freedom of Religion Act, 2003, lays down stricter punishment for forced conversion through marriage.

Gujarat’s new law has followed the suit of the other BJP-ruled states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh which introduced similar amendments to severely penalise and regulate interfaith marriages. As per reports, the BJP-ruled states of Haryana and Karnataka are also “working towards” bringing about similar laws.

Making The Law "Stricter"

The official objective of amending the 2003 Freedom of Religion Act is to make the anti-conversion law “stricter”.

However, the Gujarat Assembly did not show any evidence of a substantial spurt in cases of “forced or fraudulent conversions” or any grave harm caused by such conversions in the society to back the need to bring a “stricter law”.

Rather, the Objects & Reasons of the Bill reads:

"“...However there are episodes of religious conversion promising better lifestyle, divine blessings and impersonation. There is an emerging trend in which women are lured to marriage for the purpose of religious conversion.”"

While prohibiting conversion through “allurement” or “temptation”, the Act defines both these ambiguous terms in such open-ended phrases that it makes the entire provision fertile for political exploitation. The Amendment Act introduces the third ground of prohibition – forcible religious conversion through marriage.

Introducing “forcible conversion through marriage” as a new ground, the Amendment Act would enable the government to misuse the ambiguous wording of the Act to harass and criminalise interfaith couples under its “love jihad” bogey.

Widening the Net of Harassment

The amendment act has added more categories to the list of persons who can complain about instances of “forced conversion”. Now, under Section 3A, any “aggrieved person” – parents, brother, sister, or any other person related by blood marriage, adoption – may file a complaint at the police station.

This provision substantially jeopardises interfaith couples, who already have to face immense backlash and harassment from their families. Now, their marriage, will be left at the mercy of their remotest relative.

Excessive Punishment

The Amending Act has also created new categories of persons who can be punished under the Act. This would potentially enable the government to not only punish the individuals but also target a wider community.

Now, “any person who does or omits to do any act for enabling or aiding other person to cmmite fraudulent conversion will be penalised”. The net of punishment is also extended to those who “counsel” or “convinces” people to commit an “offence” under this Act.

Therefore, the purpose seems to be clear. By widening the net, the governments want to create a chilling effect to deter any conversation on interfaith marriages. Even those who were considered as “safer-spaces” by interfaith couples will not feel scared to “counsel” or give advice.

Moreover, if any institution is found violating this law, then every person who was in charge or was responsible for such a violation could be punished with imprisonment of three years (may extend to 10 years) and a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh.

Reverse Burden of Proof

One of the most draconian provisions of the Amendment Act is the reverse burden of proof. The Act puts the burden of proving innocence on the persons accused of causing a forced conversion.

Reverse burden of proof is a complete departure from a sacrosanct principle of criminal justice that says that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The governments depart from this principle only in “emergency laws” or laws for punishing exteremely serious offences. In India, the anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, follows reverse burden of proof.

The Gujarat Assembly gave no justification for incorporating such a stringent evidentiary rule in an anti-conversion law, which is only punishable with three years of punishment.

Reverse burden of proof will further motivate the government and the “aggrieved persons” to indiscriminately file complaints under the Act to harass the interfaith couples. This would pave the way for the government to make the process the punishment, and use criminal justice system to throttle freedom of religion and the fundamental right to lead a dignified life.

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