December 26, 2021

KARNATAKA: Bommai joins Yogi in the ‘Anti-Conversion’ Crusade!

Vikram Vincent

IN Hindi movies, the powerful antagonist stops the marriage saying, “Ye shaadi nahi ho sakti!” This scene would highlight the complete disregard of individual choice and autonomy, the fact that the wedding has already been organised, guests present and all parties being willing participants. Anti-Conversion Bill introduced by Karnataka government precisely plays the role of the Bollywood baddie in real life.

The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, being a complete misnomer, joins the list of anti-conversion acts and ordinances introduced by various state governments, as an exercise by the state to continue deeply institutionalised oppression of marginalised sections of society. The ‘statement of objects and reasons’ provides an evidence-less weak reasoning stating, “In recent years the state has noticed many instants of conversion by means of 'allurement', 'coercion', 'force', fraudulent means" and also 'mass' conversion.  These instances caused disturbance of 'public order' in the state.”  State BJP spokespersons have been reeling out before the media, statistics of increased percentage of population of Christians in the state without citing its source, whereas all published statistics point in the other direction. They also cite some cases of conversions which are ‘forced’ or with ‘allurements’.  All these cases are mostly nothing but allegations by Sangh Parivar outfits as part of their vigilantism, which have no basis. Even if they are true, is this a sufficient reason to bring in a separate legislation that criminalises religious conversion or are there other underlying reasons?

The intent of the bill can be ascertained by breaking it into smaller pieces. The definitions sections highlighting, “any gift, gratification, easy money or material benefit either in cash or kind; employment, free education in school or college run by any religious body; or promise to marry; or better lifestyle,” provide some insight that the people who are converting are economically downtrodden, lack access to employment, education and health facilities. With the State abdicating its role to provide these basic requirements as a matter of policy, these marginalised sections would normally remain at the mercy of the landlords, industrialists and State machinery.  However, when religious organisations take on the role of providers, there is a shift in the power dynamics with the increased political consciousness. Thus, the anti-conversion laws need to be viewed with the lens that they are intended to prevent this rising political consciousness and political action of the oppressed sections.

In recent years, women have been breaking the control of deeply entrenched patriarchy by marrying a person of their choice. The anti-conversion bill is another method to curtail this autonomy and choice by allowing parents, siblings, relatives by blood, marriage or adoption, including any colleague or any “associated” person to file complaints and thus disrupt a marriage or relationship of the girl’s choice.

The bill imposes stringent unreasonable restrictions on conversion, which is a fundamental right. Person desiring to convert and ‘converter’ are mandated to inform district magistrate 30 days before, the date and place of conversion ceremony. This will be notified to public and objections invited. The concerned departments will conduct an inquiry and determine if it violated the law. This applies to any objections after the conversions also. The criteria for determining if a conversion is with ‘allurements’ or ‘forced’ in the bill is so wide ranging, subjective and vague that any conversion can be determined to violate the law. This is of course the real intent of the bill, to ban all conversions.

Contrary to the provisions of the Indian Evidence Act relating to criminal issues, the person filing the complaint is not obligated to provide any evidence as the burden of proof is put on the accused rather than the complainant. In continuation, the offense is made ‘cognizable and non-bailable’ which means that the police do not need a warrant to arrest an accused and grant of bail is not a matter of right.  It should be noted that alleged cases of incentivised religious conversion are being equated to murder, rape, dowry death, and kidnapping.  Also the fines and punishments for the ‘violators’ (both ‘convert’ and ‘convertor’) are very stringent.  Fines range from Rs 25,000 to ten lakhs, imprisonment range from three to ten years. Higher fines and imprisonment for converting a person from SC/ST!

Dr Peter Machado, the Archbishop of Bangalore had stated in his letter to the chief minister of Karnataka, “Thousands of schools, colleges and hospitals are run and managed by Christian community across the state. When lakhs of students are graduating from these institutions year after year and thousands of patients irrespective of caste, creed or colour receive the best medical attention from our hospitals and care centres, let the government prove that even one of them has ever been influenced, compelled or coerced to change his or her religion.” However, without providing any data, the bill provides a section to penalise religious institutions providing education, orphanages, old-age homes, and health care on the basis of frivolous complaints by motivated individuals or groups.

Articles 25 of the Constitution of India explicitly guarantees the freedom of conscience, the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate religion to all citizens and the anti-conversion bills, acts and ordinances are an affront to this freedom because it criminalises these specific freedoms. Looking at the current physical attacks by fringe elements on religious minorities, mischievous complaints are to be expected. Vague complaints that would never reach trial will still take years to get cleared under the current legal system. Considering the vulnerable sections being dalits, adivasis and women who do not have access to legal resources, this bill becomes an effective tool for prolonged harassment using State apparatus.

There are several commonalities of the anti-conversion bill, acts and ordinances by the various state governments. Most of them allow interested persons to file complaints, place the burden of proof on the accused rather than the complainant, they assign a higher penalty for converting a woman or person belonging to SC/ST section, have no safeguards against misuse, do not address the issue of societal discrimination that motivates a person to convert to another religion, create a high barrier to officially convert to convert to another religion, label the converted as a victim but provides for a punishment either directly or indirectly.

The Uttar Pradesh ordinance and Himachal Pradesh bill go further by prescribing that the district magistrate shall order a police enquiry to ascertain “real intention, purpose and cause of the proposed religious conversion” even after the convertor and converted have submitted the necessary documents.  While only the Madhya Pradesh law provides for maintenance and inheritance of the wife and child in a nullified marriage, Karnataka and the three states aim to nullify the marriage for simply violating the requirements of prior notice and post-conversion notice.

The Karnataka Anti-Conversion Bill also violates the right to privacy of an individual as it aims to collect highly sensitive personal data such as income, caste, gender, address and put it up for public scrutiny. Considering the ramifications of the watering down of the data protection bill and the linkage of the Electoral ID with the Aadhaar, this has far reaching ramifications that go against the democratic set up of India.