The Madhya Pradesh State Governor signed off on a new Freedom of Religion Ordinance 2020 on 9 January; the “anti-conversion” legislation tightens the previous Freedom of Religion law that dates from 1968.
The new law adds marriage and a 60 day notice period requirement prior to converting, or officially changing religion, to the previously stated reasons by which conversion can be ruled illegal.
The ordinance states, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any other person by use of misrepresentation, allurement, use of threat of force, undue influence, coercion or marriage or by any other fraudulent means.” State Governor Anandiben Patel added, “Marriage celebrated in violation of this law will be considered null and void.”
The penalty for the use of marriage for conversion is a prison term of between three to ten years and a fine of at least 50,000 Indian rupees (£500, $685, €570).
The new ordinance also introduces a provision requiring anyone who wishes to officially change religion in the eyes of the authorities, as well as religious officiates (pastors) performing the conversion, to apply to the district administration 60 days in advance of conversion. Contravention carries a jail term of between three to five years, and a penalty of 50,000 rupees.
The penalty for any other contravention of the ordinance has risen to between one to five years imprisonment and a fine of 25,000 Indian rupees. Previously, the sentence for conversions using force, allurement or fraud was a jail term of up to a year and/or a fine of 5,000 rupees (£50, $69, €57).
Critics say the law widened to curb Muslim “Love-jihad”
Some critics say the legislation has been widened in order to curb the so-called “Love-Jihad” operations of Muslim organisations who lure non-Muslim girls into marriage to Muslim men, which obliges the brides to convert to Islam in accordance with sharia.
Penalties for religious conversion involving scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and minors are increased from two years and a 10,000 rupee fine (£100, $137, €114) to up to ten years imprisonment and a 50,000 (£5,000, $635, €565) rupee fine. Scheduled castes, who include Dalits, formerly termed “untouchables”, are viewed as having low status within the Hindu caste system, while scheduled tribes are marginalised because of their geographical isolation.
Indian church leader Leo Cornelius said that the new, more stringent ordinance “goes against constitutional principles and freedoms, and is a systematic plan to harass minorities, especially Christians”.
Hindu conversion ‘homecoming’ campaigns exempt from penalty
Cornelius continued, “For Christians in particular, if they gather for family prayers or community prayers, where they sing, etc., an extremist group interrupts prayers, while another group goes to the police and records cases of invented conversions against Christians.”
The Freedom of Religion laws have not been applied to the mass conversion campaigns of Hindu radical groups, known as Ghar Wapsi (“homecoming”), in which Christians are pressured into converting to Hinduism. Leo Cornelius commented that the laws are, “one-sided with the sole intent of persecuting the Christian minority and pleasing [Hindu] political leaders”.
Of the nine Indian states that have approved anti-conversion legislation, only three – Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and the recently passed law in Uttar Pradesh – also declare a marriage to be void if it was solemnised for the sole purpose of conversion, or a conversion was done solely for the purpose of marriage.
The Madhya Pradesh ordinance is similar to Uttar Pradesh’s Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, which came into force in November 2020 and has already been used by members of hard-line Hindu group, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), to accuse five Christians of trying to “unlawfully” convert people to Christianity.