Karnataka’s Catch-All Anti-Conversion Bill Criminalises Charity, Marriage
The Cabinet on Monday cleared the anti-conversion bill – and it is likely to be tabled in the Assembly on Tuesday.
The Quint DAILY
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(This article was first published on 18 December and has been republished. The Karnataka Assembly on Thursday, 23 December, cleared the anti-conversion bill.)
The anti-conversion bill of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Karnataka will criminalise "allurement," including employment and free education in schools run by any religious body.
The legislation, which is titled Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, also brings under scrutiny the services of all institutions, including “educational institutions, orphanages, old-age homes, hospitals, religious missionaries, NGOs and other such organisations.”
Further, the bill, criminalises mass conversions and conversions for marriage, the draft suggests.
The bill also brings under scrutiny all religious conversions, as it proposes to ask religious converts and those performing the act to declare the same before the courts. Punishment for unlawful conversions as per the bill ranges between a minimum of three years and a maximum of 10. The fine ranges between Rs 25,000 and Rs 1 lakh.
On Allurement and Institutions Run by Religious Bodies
The bill states that no person should “convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion to another by use of practice, misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage…”
What is, however, alarming about the bill is the definition of each of the operative terms.
For instance, the bill states that allurement would mean gifts, material benefits, employment or free education, and promise of marriage. Allurement would also include better lifestyle. It means anyone who accepts charity or those whose life materially betters after religious conversion can be considered a victim of unlawful conversion. According to leaders of Karnataka minority communities, the legislation would lead to a crackdown on the institutions run by them.
In an earlier interview to The Quint, archbishop of Bengaluru Peter Machado had asked, “Will providing tuition fee relaxation for poor students be considered allurement?” As per the bill, it can.
The bill states that registration of institutions that indulge in religious conversion by force or allurement, can be cancelled by a competent authority “upon reference made by a district magistrate.” Government aid given to such institutions can also be cancelled.
Further, the burden of proof will be on the person who is accused of conversion. That is, the accused – person or institution – will have to prove that they have not indulged in unlawful religious conversion.
This, despite Christian religious leaders requesting the government not to criminalise charitable acts performed by their institutions.
‘Ghar Wapsi’ Allowed? Mass Conversions, Marriage Criminalised
As per the bill, mass conversions would mean religious conversion of two or more persons. It means if a family converts to another religion, it can be considered unlawful.
Mass religious conversions have been adopted by several marginalised communities, including Dalits and Adivasis, as a way of emancipation from the caste system. On 14 October 1956, Dr BR Ambedkar, who was the architect of Indian Constitution, had adopted Buddhism along with 3 lakh other Dalits.
In April 2018, over 300 Dalits from Gujarat's Una had converted to Buddhism to protest caste-based discrimination and violence. In several states, including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana, there are a large number of Dalit Christians. In Karnataka, there are 30 lakh Dalit Christians, Karnataka Dalit Christian Okkootta, an umbrella organisation for Dalit Christians, claims.
According to the bill, marriages performed for “the sole purpose of unlawful conversion” by men and women of different religions will be declared as void.
Any family court can try such cases based on any petition filed by either party – the bride or the groom.
While the bill says that it will penalise all "religious convertors" – or persons of any religion who perform acts of conversion – including “father, priest, purohit, pandit, moulvi or mulla etc,” it does not criminalise a return to one’s “original religion.” It means Ghar Wapsi or the conversion back to Hinduism, which right-wing outfits, including Bajrag Dal, Vishva Hindu Parishad, and Hindu Jagaran Samaj, have been supporting, may not be criminalised. In Karnataka, all the three outfits, in 2019, had announced that they would actively "call back" people who have left the Hindu fold.
In November 2021, Akhila Bharatha Veerashaiva Mahasabha, which is a dominant Lingayat caste organisation, had asked his taluk and district units to prepare for 'Ghar Wapsi.' The Mahasabha plans to conduct 'Ghar Wapsi' in December, right after the bill is passed in the Assembly.
The bill is also supported by Hindu right-wing outfits, including the Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sene, both of which have been, in the recent past, involved in attacks on churches in Karnataka. In fact, the outfits had met Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai in November 2021 and petitioned him to promulgate the bill.
All Conversions Under Scanner
Moreover, the bill is expected to bring under the scrutiny of law all religious conversions.
According to the bill, “a declaration of conversion and pre-report” should be submitted before anyone converts to a religion of one’s choice. The declaration form which says that the conversion is by choice, should be submitted to a district magistrate or additional district magistrate six months before the act.
The "religious converter" should give one month’s advanced notice to the court.
The bill proposes that the court will then, through the police, investigate the claims in the declaration. A similar declaration should also be filed within 30 days after the conversion, the bill proposes. The person who has converted should also present themselves before the court within 21 days.
Stringent Penalty for Conversions
The bill, meanwhile, proposes to impose strict punishment for unlawful religious conversion. The bill states the minimum punishment for violation of the prohibition of unlawful religious conversion will be an imprisonment term for a minimum of three years and a fine of Rs 25,000. The maximum term for imprisonment will be five years.
However, in the case of religious conversion of a minor, woman or person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, the maximum term for imprisonment will be 10 years. In such cases, the fine will be Rs 1 lakh.
For mass conversions, too, the span of imprisonment will be between a minimum of three years and a maximum of 10. Fine will be Rs 1 lakh. The bill further states that the courts can also ask those convicted of unlawful religious conversion to pay up to Rs 5 lakh as compensation to the victim.
Repeat offenders under the legislation will be punished with double the penalty, that is, a minimum of three years of imprisonment could become six years. Moreover, all offences under the law will be cognisable and non-bailable.
The offences will be triable by the jurisdictional judicial magistrate of first class or the chief metropolitan magistrate.
Mass conversions will be penalised by imprisonment of a term not less than three years, extending up to 10 years, and a fine which is not less than Rs 1 lakh.
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