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Himachal tightens anti-conversion law to check abuse

Himachal Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur

In a state, where the Scheduled Caste (SC) population is reported to be more than 25 percent and religious conversations among Dalits are happening quite frequently, Himachal Pradesh has chosen to act tough.

The state legislative assembly on Saturday approved a new law to ban mass conversions, described as two or more people converting at the same time through force or allurement, and introduced a provision to debar Dalits from taking benefits of reservations, allowed to Hindu Dalits, in case they convert.

Says Suresh Bhardwaj, minister for law and parliamentary affairs, though the incumbent BJP government had amended the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) act in 2019 but a few more stringent provisions have been brought to curb forced conversions.

“One of the landmark provision, for the first time in the country, will be denying benefits of reservations to any member of the SC community, if he/she converts to another religion .There is already a provision of making a prior declaration about his intention  to convert but he/she will give a voluntary undertaking not to claim benefits of reservations ,available earlier to him/her as a Hindu” said Bhardwaj.

The Bill, which was passed by voice vote, despite opposition by the Congress and lone CPM MLA Rakesh Singh asking for sending the bill to a select committee of the House. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur declared the bill doesn’t contravene any provision of the constitution.

“Religious conversions bill was first passed under the congress regime lead by Virbhadra Singh . We have amended few provisions to  have more teeth to the law and effectively stop conversions through deceitful means, fraud, allurements and also coercions “said the Chief Minister

He drew attention of the House towards reports which the state government had received from Rohru, Rampur ,Ani ,Karsog,Banjar and Nirmand areas . Every day poor Dalits and tribal are lured to churches and other places. Their names remain unchanged yet they are led to convert to different religions.

The bill also proposed to raise the punishment for forced conversions  from five years to 10 years on the lines of other BJP ruled states, apart from this, a provision has been made for a fine of at least Rs 1.5 lakh, which can be increased to Rs two lakh.

“The cases of conversions, lodged at police stations ,will now be investigated by an officer not below the rank of Sub-Inspector and trial will happen before sessions court, not any magistrate” said Suresh Bhardwaj, Minister for Law and Parliamentary affairs  told India Narrative.

In the earlier amendment, passed in 2019, Himachal Pradesh had also included conversions through marriages (as they call love jihad) as crime under the Act

Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act,2019 was notified on December 21, 2020. The bill was passed with the aim to bring changes to the conversion law of 2006 when Virbhadra Singh was Chief Minister despite objections raised to his move by congress high command including Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

It was because he had first hand knowledge of conversions happening in his own assembly constituency of Rohru and native place –Rampur Bushahr .The Hindu organisations had also countered the moves of Christian Missionaries in Rampur ,Rohru and Ani .Later had submitted a memorandum to the government asking for ban on conversations for which Virbhadra Singh pioneered .

Himachal High Court in 2012 stayed the law on the grounds it was a violation of religious freedom and later struck down some provisions relating .The Act survived.

Further,in the year 2019, the state government reintroduced the bill by making 10 amendments to the 2006 law. This bill was passed in the form of law in December 2020.

The new amendment bill passed by the Jai Ram Thakur government proposes to increase the jail term for forced conversion from seven years to a maximum of 10 year

The bill read “If a person, even after conversion, avails of the facilities available under his original religion, then it will come under the category of crime. A provision of 2 years imprisonment has been made for the person doing so, which can be extended to 5 years. Also, the fine can be increased from 50,000 to Rs one lakh”

Once the bill gets the nod of the state Governor, any members of the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes or OBC category, if converted , will not get any kind of reservation after that. Also, if they keep taking advantage of reservations by hiding their religious conversion, then they will have to serve a term of 5 years in jail and they will also have to pay a fine of Rs 50000 to Rs one lakh.

The BJP has been a vocal supporter of anti-conversion laws and many party-ruled states have introduced similar measures.

Bhardwaj said there has been persistent demand from the members of the SC community to resort to tough measures to stop conversions and also make converts eligible to take benefits of reservations.