Drawing the line between voluntary and forced religious conversions
Four state governments led by the Bharatiya Janata Party have announced enactment of a new law to tackle what has come to be known as ‘love jihad’. The government of Uttar Pradesh was the first to announce a move to make such a law. The idea was subsequently picked up by the governments of Karnataka and Haryana. Madhya Pradesh is the latest state to join the bandwagon. The law is likely to have a provision of five years of rigorous imprisonment to serve as a deterrent. Those assisting in such crimes would be treated as the primary accused and the offence would be non-bailable. Surprisingly, though the phrase, ‘love jihad’ has been used by extremist Hindu elements for almost two decades, it hit the national headlines in 2009 with such elements turning vocal, and often violent, against the lovers or couples of different religions, first in Kerala and then in Karnataka. Love jihad has been described by the Hindu extremists as a ‘Muslim conspiracy’ to increase the number of followers of their faith by sending out Muslim men to target women belonging to non-Muslim communities by feigning love and then converting them to Islam.
As several BJP-ruled states move toward making a law against ‘love jihad’ it needs to be noted that the phrase remains only a partisan group’s description and hence arbitrary and expedient. In February this year the central government told the Parliament that the term ‘love jihad’ was not defined under any existing law and no case had been reported by any central agency. The stand of the central government was seen as an attempt to distance itself from the propaganda of the Hindu extremists. A month ago Rekha Sharma, the chairperson of the National Women’s Commission met the Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari and discussed the issue of rising cases of ‘love jihad’ in the state. Though Sharma made the claim of increase in the cases of ‘love jihad’ she failed to provide any data to show the alleged rise in such complaints in the state.
Last year the Himachal Pradesh Assembly passed a bill against conversion by force, inducement or through marriages solemnised for the ‘sole purpose’ of adopting a new religion. There was however no mention of ‘love jihad’ as a prelude to the enacting of the law in Himachal Pradesh. The Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra has said that his government would bring up the Dharma Swatantrya Bill 2020 under which the practice of coercing someone into marriage by cajoling or pressuring will be made punishable by five-year rigorous imprisonment. He said that only those forcing someone to convert for marriage would have to face the law. He, however, said that those choosing to convert voluntarily would have to apply to the collector a month in advance and follow the procedure.
There can be no two opinions on the issue that there should be a total ban on forced conversions, whether they are for the purpose of marriage or for any other benefit. Several states, including Gujarat, actually already have a law against religious conversions by force or allurement. The law in the states also requires the person converting from one religion to another to write to the district magistrate giving reasons for conversion. Only if the district magistrate is satisfied that the change of faith is voluntary the conversion is accepted on the official records. However, what the four BJP-led states—UP, MP, Karnataka and Haryana—are doing is making a specific law to satisfy the demand of the Hindu extremists to make religious conversion for marriage punishable. Sooner or later the enactments of the BJP-led states are bound to come up before high courts and the apex court, because the line between voluntary and forced conversion is very thin in cases where a non-Muslim woman marries a Muslim man. We have seen in several cases when the non-Muslim woman has willingly accepted her conversion and justified it on the grounds of her freedom to choose her way of life. Where state governments have to maintain vigil are cases in which there is a pattern behind religious conversions such as the husbands using the converted women as instruments of some hideous and criminal design.