The ordinance on prevention of unlawful conversions, that came into force in Uttar Pradesh on Saturday, has attracted criticism from political parties and activists, who said this is an attempt by the government to draw attention away from more pressing problems.
Former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav said the Samajwadi Party would oppose the ordinance when it is presented in the Vidhan Sabha. “When there is a scheme to give incentives for intercaste marriages, why must the government discriminate against interfaith marriages,” said Yadav in an interaction with the media.
The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance received the nod of Uttar Pradesh Governor Anandiben Patel on Saturday. An ordinance comes into force when the legislature is not in session and has to be passed by the lawmaking body within six weeks of its next meeting.
The ordinance will bear down on any conversions that take place due to physical or psychological pressure, allurements such as a better lifestyle, or threats that include instilling fears of divine displeasure. Conversions shall be deemed fraudulent when the person forcing it misidentifies himself through name, surname, religious symbol or otherwise.
The ordinance also specifies that a conversion to one’s previous religion shall not be deemed a conversion for the purposes of this law.
Such conversions will invite imprisonment of one to three years and fines not less than Rs 15,000. In the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the quantum of punishment will be between two and 10 years and a fine of not less than Rs 25,000. For mass conversions—defined by the ordinance as conversions of two or more persons—the punishment will be three to ten years in prison and at least Rs 50,000 as fine.
While the ordinance clearly includes within its definition all the religious authorities who would be leading the conversion process— Catholic priest, Karmakandi, Maulvi or Mullah— SP spokesperson Juhie Singh said, “The law is clearly meant to discriminate against certain faiths. It is inherently regressive”.
Though the SP is unlikely to have the numbers to defeat the bill in the state legislature, Singh said the party would make its opposition known. “In the meanwhile, we shall keep an eye out for any misuse of the ordinance, which is most likely to happen,” she said.
Subhasini Ali, president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, said the ordinance encroached upon women’s right to choose a life partner. “It is born out of the same mindset that frowns on intercaste marriages to maintain the purity of caste, and to control women. Because this concerns other religions, the government has been able to come up with this draconian law. There have been numerous judicial pronouncements on forcible conversions, so there is no need to bring a special law for it. The need is to make the Special Marriages Act more accessible to people”.
The Special Marriage Act of 1954 enables marriages between Indian nationals or Indians in other countries irrespective of the faith that the parties belong to. The Act requires that a notice for the intended marriage be given to the marriage officer of the district in which one of the parties has resided for not less than 30 days preceding the notice. This notice is then to be displayed at a ‘conspicuous place’ in the marriage officer’s office to enable any objections to be made to the marriage as are prescribed by the Act. It is often these displays that come to the attention of hardliners who then create problems for the couple and often their families.
The UP ordinance demands that a notice of ‘at least’ 60 days be given to the district magistrate or a competent authority by a person who wishes to convert. It also calls for a notice of a month from the person leading the conversion about the place at which the conversion is to take place. It gives the DM the power to then conduct through the police an inquiry into the purpose, intention and cause of such conversion. The converted person is also to send a declaration within 60 days of the conversion and also appear before the relevant authority within 21 days of sending that declaration. The burden of proof that the conversion was made without threat or allurement shall lie with the person who performs the conversion.
Ajay Kumar Lallu, the state president of the Congress, said his party had no comment to make on the ordinance. “We will decide what we have to do in the House when the bill is tabled before it. But for now, we want to know from the government why it has not brought laws to fulfil its other promises such as providing 14 lakh government jobs. The state wants to know where are the laws to regularise the services of Anganwadi workers, ASHAs, Rozgar Sewaks and the like,” he said.