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UP Anti-Conversion Law: Data Shows Rise in Cases, Christians Allege Harassment

Christian leaders and activists have raised concerns over the controversial Uttar Pradesh anti-conversion law.

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Ever since the controversial Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Act, 2021 was passed in 2020, the state has seen a significant rise in the number of First Information Reports (FIRs) filed against alleged religious conversions to the Christian faith.

Going through 170 FIRs filed across 40 districts in Uttar Pradesh under the controversial anti-conversion law, this author found at least 700 individuals have been accused of unlawful religious conversion since 2020. The total number of accused under the Act are not known.

Notably, in four cases of alleged conversion, the anti-conversion law was not applied - two cases used the Gangster Act, and two other cases used sections like criminal intimidation and disrupting public order. Further, over 200 accused were unnamed or unidentified persons in these FIRs.

The Quint has found out that Azamgarh saw the highest number with 20 FIRs, followed by Sitapur (14), Fatehpur (13), Jaunpur (12), Ambedkar Nagar (8) and Gorakhpur (8). Our data recorded one case from 2020, 12 from 2021, 59 from 2022 and 99 from 2023.

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AC Michael, National Coordinator of the United Christian Forum (UCF), said the anti-conversion law violates the constitutional right to profess one's religion. He argued "arrests occur on flimsy grounds" like distributing bibles, questioning if global Hindu centres like the Ramakrishna mission sharing the Gita are accused of converting people adding that "so far very few convictions prove actual conversion."

According to data collected by the UCF, there have been 184 FIRs filed charging individuals with unlawful religious conversion to Christianity in Uttar Pradesh between 2020 and 2023. 398 people have gone to jail from Dec 2020 to November 27, 2023, out of which 318 males and 80 females were included. The breakdown is as follows, 2 cases in 2020, 14 cases from 2021, 59 from 2022, and 109 in 2023.

Michael explained obtaining FIRs is difficult as police often deny sharing case details. They rely on victims for information, so "many cases likely go unreported," he added.

The Uttar Pradesh Anti-Conversion Law

The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Act, 2021 was passed by the state government in November 2020 and received assent from the Governor at the end of that month.

The stated intent was to "regulate religious conversions and prohibit unlawful conversion from one religion to another through misrepresentation, force, influence, coercion, allurement, fraudulent means, or marriage." The laws are in force in eight out of twenty-nine states: Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Uttarakhand.

As per the law, illegal religious conversion is designated a cognisable and non-bailable offense punishable with up to 10 years imprisonment if convicted.

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What 170 FIRs Reveal

Examining the 170 of the FIRs registered, around 700 individuals have been accused under the anti-conversion law in Uttar Pradesh. The highest number of accused - approximately 200 - were charged in Fatehpur district. Jaunpur district saw the second highest number, with 90 individuals facing accusations. In some cases, a single person was charged multiple times across different FIRs.

On January 1, 2023, an FIR was filed at Kethwali police station in Fatehpur district charging 47 people under Sections 3 and 5(1) of Uttar Pradesh's anti-conversion law. Additional charges under the 1860 Act - Sections 420 (cheating), 467 (forgery), 468 (forgery of documents), 506 (criminal intimidation), and 120B (criminal conspiracy) were also applied. Similarly, two other FIRs filed in the same station on January 23rd and 24th of the same year charged 47 individuals under the same sections, with some names repeated across all three FIRs. Around 20 people were unidentified in each of the said FIRs.

The complaints accused the Christian devotees of allegedly saying their "organization will provide gifts, cash, jobs, and education to children to become devotees of Jesus and convert to Christianity." It also included allegations of foreign funds being received. The three FIRs were filed against people associated with the Broadwell Christian Hospital in Fatehpur by third parties rather than direct victims.

The Quint had earlier investigated how many of the cases of anti-conversion are actually unlawful, since they are based on third party complainants.

Earlier, an October 2023 Article 14 report analyzing 101 FIRs in Uttar Pradesh found the majority wrongly accused of forced conversions without legal basis.

According to one of the accused, who is a Christian priest, "Almost 68 families from different parts of India like Jharkhand, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Uttarakhand, who worked as hospital staff or nurses were affected." Many like him had lived in UP for years. "I came from Kerala 25 years ago. My Aadhaar has this UP address. I came here on a mission to serve the poor, and our hospital often gave concessions in charges to locals, but got harassment in return."

The 109-year-old hospital website states it served the poor and needy. But employees said it now suffers from staff shortage as doctors were arrested and others stopped coming due to fear. Around 29 people were jailed for 2-8 months in these cases.

An Allahabad High Court lawyer, who didn’t want to be named, said such mass conversion charges started in April 2022 when police and VHP leaders gathered at a Fatehpur church, locked the gates, and charged many with conversion.

"After this, in early 2023 we saw an increase in cases without proper evidence, like the Broadwell incident with over 60 families accused," she said. "I'm overseeing multiple FIRs myself - people were not just charged under the anti-conversion law but also assaulted by police and Hindutva groups."

"Since 2018 I've worked with Christian communities in UP and filed PILs for prayer permissions in places like Gazipur, Johnpur, and Fatehpur. It's after 2022 that the amount of such conversion cases increased significantly due to the anti-conversion law being in place," she added.

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Gangster Act Used in Select Cases

In most instances, Sections 3 and 5(1) of the anti-conversion law were applied against the accused in Uttar Pradesh. However, two FIRs only charged sections like criminal intimidation (506), disrupting public order (504), and voluntarily causing hurt (323), despite alleging religious conversion.

One such FIR was filed in December 2020, the other in August 2023. According to advocate Munish Chandra, who practices in the Allahabad High Court, before the anti-conversion law came into force, allegations were charged under regular penal code sections. Accused would get bail from lower courts, with cases ending within months. But after the new law was enacted, the situation changed.

We found another two cases charged under the Gangsters Act 1986, Section 3(1), punishable by 2-10 years imprisonment. On September 10, 2023, an FIR in Malipur alleged the accused were "luring people to convert religions" - a heinous crime under the Act. Similarly, on October 21 in Jhansi, the FIR accused the defendants of "luring conversions to Christianity." It cited the seizure of religious reading material.

Advocate Chandra, who handled the Jhansi case, said those charged included an NGO worker and a college girl, without criminal records. Yet they were labeled as gangsters. "The very complaint was filed by a policeman. How can they be called organized criminals, without having prior cases?" he argued. Though he got the FIR quashed, the harassment faced could not be neglected, he said.

Shiv Kumar Singh, SHO of Prem Nagar police station in Jhansi, said, "I have recently been appointed, and I have no idea about the case."

Rajesh S, SP Jhansi, when asked about the provision of charging a person under alleged conversion under the Gangster Act instead of the Anti-Conversion Act, responded, "Please refer to the act. Cases are sub judice, and we cannot comment."

Over 200 Accused Unnamed in FIRs

More than 200 of the accused were unnamed or unidentified persons in the 170 FIRs filed examined by the author. While the number of known accused is high, the addition of unnamed persons pushes the figure even higher.

One accused who was not initially named in an FIR on April 14, 2022, under Sections 3 and 5(1) of the anti-conversion law said, "I wasn't present at the alleged conversion site, but later when I asked police about grounds for accusing people I knew, my name got added to the case."

He added, "Often when a person is charged, police take ID copies which then get used to name them in other cases."

Another accused from Kushi Nagar district in one such case said, "We are poor. After the case, police have visited many times taking bribes to resolve matters. Being poor, what option do we have? We barely know of these laws."

According to advocate Chandra, "This makes the situation even more dangerous. Police often take bribes from people to leave their names off cases. Out of fear people give in to these demands."

As per Chandra, one Sitapur case had 500 unknown accused in the FIR. We could not verify, as we did not get access to that FIR.

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Christian Leaders Allege Misuse of Law to Target Minorities

Christian leaders have raised concerns that the anti-conversion law is being misused to harass minorities and infringe on constitutionally protected religious freedom.

A March 2023 update by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom examined such laws in 12 Indian states. It suggested that vague provisions violate human rights treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Citing the UP law, it noted the broad language could target even voluntary conversions. As in Haryana's law, some specifically look to prevent so-called "Love Jihad" - a derogatory term based on a conspiracy theory for interfaith marriages.

"I've seen orders from top officials including the CM pressuring police to file cases. It is clearly political, not about faith," said AC Michael.

Christians allege increased attacks by Hindutva radicals since the law was passed. A UCF report documented anti-Christian violence in twenty-three states in 2023, primarily 155 cases in UP and 84 in Chhattisgarh.

“Most cases don't even reach the FIR stage, as victims are threatened into silence,” adds Michael.

According to Retired IPS Officer, SR Darapuri, "Anti-conversion act is a prime facie against religious minorities. It violates the fundamental right of a person to practice his religion. It is an attack on minorities in the pretext of conversion, not just Christians, but also both Muslims and Buddhists are on the receiving end.”

When asked about flimsy grounds as alleged by Christian groups, he said, 'If having religious text or distributing it as grounds for conversion, why is it just minorities? It is framing people using these charges.' On the use of the Gangster Act, he said, "It is sheer misuse of law because the Gangster Act covers a gang committing an organised crime. Conversion doesn't come under said act."

The author emailed the Director General of Police Prashant Kumar in Uttar Pradesh.

Our queries focused on the rise in Anti-Conversion Act accusations, instances of Gangster Act charges alongside conversion charges, the presence of unknown accused in FIRs, and allegations of flimsy grounds for charges, notably involving possession of religious materials like the Bible.

We will update the copy upon receiving a response.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Anti-Conversion Law 

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