Bhopal: Calling it the most stringent anti-conversion legislation in the country, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan cabinet Saturday cleared the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2020, shifting the burden of proof to the accused and providing for maintenance (alimony) to victims (women) and children.
The bill, that will replace the 1968 anti-conversion law in Madhya Pradesh, will be tabled in a three-day assembly session beginning 28 December. The cabinet cleared the bill at a special virtual meeting.
The BJP-ruled state announced its intention to bring such a law weeks ago but delayed it to include new provisions that either matched the most stringent provisions in other states or outdid them. For example, the state wanted to provide a maximum jail term of five years but doubled it after Uttar Pradesh cleared an ordinance providing for a 10-year term.
The bill does not use the term ‘love jihad’ but its main provisions make it clear that the legislation targets interfaith marriages that result from misrepresentation, allurement, threat, force, undue influence, use of fraudulent means, coercion, abetment and conspiracy.
The maximum punishment provided in the proposed legislation is a minimum fine of Rs 50,000 and a 10-year jail term if the person converted is a woman or minor who belongs to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. Mass conversion (simultaneous conversions of two or more persons) will fetch a minimum of five years to a maximum of 10 years in jail, and a minimum fine of Rs 1 lakh.
Priests conducting conversions will have to inform the district magistrate 60 days in advance. Those who fail to give such intimation will be liable for a jail term between three and five years, and a minimum fine of Rs 50,000.
Burden of proof on accused
State Home Minister Narottam Mishra told reporters that the MP government had tried to make the legislation most stringent in the country by including provisions like maintenance and allowing children born of such marriages a share in the property of the accused.
Also, the burden of proof has now been placed on those accused of violating provisions of the act, meaning they will have to prove their innocence.
All offences will be cognisable and non-bailable and only the Sessions court will conduct trials in these cases.
“Person returning (reconversion) into paternal faith will not be treated as conversion,” said Mishra. Paternal religion has been defined as the religion that was followed by the father at the time of a potential convert’s birth.
Mishra further said the law provides for declaring null and void any marriage solemnised in violation of its provisions. He said organisations and institutions presiding over such conversions will also be penalised and their registrations cancelled.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan told reporters that conversion by force, allurement or using fraudulent means “will not be allowed in MP”, and the law has been made more stringent since many instances had come to light.
People who have been converted under such terms, their parents or siblings can come forward to lodge a complaint in police stations. Other relatives, legal guardians and custodians can also file such complaints, but by approaching courts.