The Bogey of Mass Conversion and the ‘Freedom of Religion’ Laws

How many bigoted laws does Uttarakhand need? There isn’t a quick or easy answer to that question, but a new legislative abomination lends the question a certain urgency. We are talking about an amendment bill introduced in the Uttarakhand assembly on November 29—and passed a day later—to make the four-year-old anti-conversion Act (which ironically goes by the name Uttarakhand ‘Freedom of Religion’ Act, 2018) even more stringent.

The amendment makes provision to increase the maximum imprisonment for ‘forcible conversion’ from the existing five years to 10 years and to make conversion a cognizable, non-bailable ‘crime’.

Shorn of the legalese, the new provisions also mean that the state police can take cognisance of complaints; they cannot, however, release the accused on bail, which can only be secured from courts.

Nobody seems to have popped the question: why was this amendment necessary? What were the ‘difficulties’ in implementing the existing law or what alarming discovery made it necessary to make the process and punishment more stringent?

We don’t know how many cases were filed under the Act in the past four years, nor have details of the number of chargesheets filed or the number of accused actually convicted. That data, one assumes, will form a part of the ‘objectives’ of the bill, but none has been made available.

As expected, there was no real debate or discussion (on the amendment) in the assembly. But can states and state assemblies be faulted for taking their cues from Parliament? This brings to mind former CJI N.V. Ramana’s lament about the sorry state of affairs resulting in ‘no clarity in the laws’.

When Parliament and state assemblies debate bills, as they earlier did, Ramana recalled, they help the courts understand better the intended objectives of new legislation. Poorly drafted bills, passed without discussion, had also led to a spurt in litigation, Ramana said. Judicial confusion shows up in conflicting interpretations and judgments in different courts.

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