From questionable arrests without any markers of wrongdoing, to a rampant rise in vigilante violence tacitly supported by the police, what are some of the key aspects of the implementation of India's various "love jihad laws" (as they are referred to colloquially, including by the leaders that passed them)?
With the Supreme Court considering whether it will hear multiple petitions against the anti-conversion laws in different states across India, we take an in-depth look at how these controversial laws have played out so far, the trends of their on-ground impact, and the status of where the various legal tussles stand.
On 16 January 2022, the Supreme Court directed the parties challenging the anti-conversion laws in various states to file one common transfer petition seeking that all similar petitions pending before different High Courts be moved to the top court.
The Supreme Court did so after noting that there are multiple petitions on the matter in front of the High Courts of
The petitions challenge the anti-conversion laws in their respective states.
The Supreme Court bench, comprising Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justice P Narasimha, and Justice J Pardiwala, stated, "In view of pendency of matters before diverse High Courts, a transfer petition will be filed before this court for tagging and transferring of all cases before this court. List the matters after two weeks.”
The apex court was hearing petitions filed by Citizens for Justice and Peace and Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind challenging the laws against religious conversions in different states.
Interestingly enough, in January 2022, the Supreme Court had refused to entertain a plea by the UP government to transfer cases challenging their anti-conversion ordinance to itself. The apex court had remarked, “If the Allahabad High Court is going to hear the cases, why should we interfere?”
Alright then, let’s get to the status check of the states one by one.
How Matters Stand in Different States
There are states where key provisions of the anti-conversion laws have been put on hold by the respective High Courts, there are others where the laws are operational without any restrictions, and yet another where a clause previously struck down by a High Court has returned to an updated version of the law.
All of this makes it all the more crucial to go into the details of each such law, and their status in the states which enacted them.
Gujarat: Key Clauses Put On Hold By High Court, Tussle Now in the Supreme Court
April 2021: The Gujarat Assembly passes the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2021, to stop the “emerging trend in which women are lured to marriage for the purpose of religious conversion”.
August 2021: The Gujarat High Court stays several sections of the amended anti-conversion law in the state. Significantly, among the sections that were put on hold was one that defined interfaith marriage as a reason for forceful conversion.
December 2022: The Gujarat government approaches the Supreme Court to lift the High Court’s stay on certain sections of the state’s anti-conversion law.Expand
Uttar Pradesh: A Catalyst of the Recent Spate of ‘Love Jihad’ Laws
On 23 September 2020, a single judge bench of the Allahabad High Court rules that changing one’s religion for the sake of marriage is not acceptable.
A few weeks later, on 1 November 2020, UP CM Yogi Adityanath refers to the judgment during a BJP rally in Jaunpur and asserts, “This is why our government has decided that we will act to stop love jihad in a firm way. Those who hide their name and identity and play with the honour of daughters and sisters, I am warning them in advance.” He adds, “Agar ve sudhre nahi to Ram naam satya hai ki yatra ab nikalne vaali hai. (If they don’t stop, their funeral processions will be taken out.)”
Interestingly enough, the High Court case whose judgment Adityanath was referencing as the reason for his action against ‘love jihad’ didn’t fit his narrative of ‘love jihad’ at all – the case pertained to a Muslim woman who had converted to Hinduism and then married a Hindu man a month later.
Ten days after Adityanath’s speech, a two-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court strikes down the court’s earlier order against conversion for the sake of marriage. The court upholds the liberty of “two matured individuals in choosing a partner” and says, “We fail to understand that if the law permits two persons even of the same sex to live together peacefully then neither any individual nor a family nor even the state can have an objection to the relationship of two major individuals who out of their own free will are living together.”
Despite the High Court specifically overruling its earlier judgment and what Adityanath had based his statements on, the BJP government in Uttar Pradesh continues on the path their chief minister had outlined and on 27 November 2020, the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance comes into effect. One of its clauses states that any conversion which was done with the sole purpose of marriage is to be declared void.
In February 2021, a bill to the same effect is passed by the UP Assembly which goes on to replace the Ordinance.
Multiple parties had filed challenges against the Ordinance. After the bill passed by the Assembly became law, the petitions challenging the Ordinance are dismissed, and fresh challenges against the new law begin being heard instead.Expand
Madhya Pradesh: Battling Restrictions From The High Court
On 7 January 2021, the BJP government led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan promulgates an anti-conversion ordinance. Two months later, on 8 March 2021, the state Assembly passes the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021 amid slogans of Jai Shri Ram.
17 November 2022: In a significant order, the Madhya Pradesh High Court restrains the state government from taking coercive action against any person who contravenes Section 10 of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 which requires a person desiring to convert religion to give a declaration in this regard to the District Magistrate.
The High Court bench of Justice Sujoy Paul and Justice Prakash Chandra Gupta finds this provision to be prima facie unconstitutional. The court further directs the state to not prosecute adult citizens if they solemnise the marriage of their own volition.
On 3 January 2023, the Supreme Court says that all conversions cannot be said to be illegal, while agreeing to hear the Madhya Pradesh government's plea challenging the High Court order. A bench of Justices M Shah and C Ravikumar issues notice in the matter and posts it for hearing on 7 February.Expand
Uttarakhand: An Updated, More Stringent Anti-Conversion Law
In May 2018, the Governor of Uttarakhand assents to the Freedom of Religion Act, 2018 that criminalises religious conversion on various grounds, including conversions for the sake of marriage.
On 30 November 2022, the Uttarakhand Assembly passes a stringent amendment to the Act that makes unlawful religious conversions in the state a cognisable and non-bailable offence, punishable with imprisonment for at least three years and a maximum of 10 years. The amendment receives the Governor’s assent in December and becomes law.Expand
Himachal Pradesh: Remodelled, and Then Amended Again
On 29 October 2019, the Governor assents to the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019, but it wasn’t the state’s first such law. In 2006, the Himachal Pradesh government led by Virbhadra Singh had become the first Congress-ruled state to pass an anti-conversion law.
But the new law in 2019 increases the quantum of punishment and adds new provisions, including one which was earlier struck down by the High Court.
In 2012, the High Court had struck down a provision of the previous Act which required any person intending to convert to give a notice to the Deputy Commissioner at least 30 days earlier.
In 2019, then Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur claimed, “It is because of this that religious conversions continued discreetly. Those who were converted were told not to change their names, but were still taken to Churches.”
Importantly, the same provision has been added again in the new law.
In August 2022, the Himachal Pradesh Assembly approves a bill to make the state's 2019 anti-conversion law more stringent by forbidding a convert from availing ''any benefit" of parents' religion or caste and enhancing the maximum punishment to 10 years of imprisonment. The 2022 amendment also bans "mass conversion" - described as two or more people converting at the same time - through force or allurement.
The amendment has received the Governor’s assent, Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu announces to the House on 5 January 2023.Expand
Jharkhand: Earlier Than Many Others
On 12 August 2017, the Jharkhand Assembly passes the anti-conversion bill brought in by the BJP-led government at the time. The law states that a person converting willingly will have to inform the Deputy Commissioner about details such as time, place and the person who administers the conversion proceedings.Expand
Karnataka: Reversing Burden of Proof
On 28 September 2022, Karnataka Governor Thawar Chand Gehlot gives his assent to the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2022, which replaces an Ordinance that he had assented to on 17 May 2022.
The law criminalises ‘allurement’ including employment and free education in schools run by any religious body. The term allurement would also cover gifts, material benefits, better lifestyle and promise of marriage. Further, the burden of proof is 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.
By December 2022, seven months since the law was implemented, there had been nine cases filed under it across the state.Expand
Haryana: Placing the Onus on the Accused
On 22 March 2022, the Haryana Assembly passes the Haryana Prevention of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Bill, 2022.
In December 2022, the state government notifies rules to implement the law, and most significantly, places the burden of proof of innocence on the accused.
The Haryana Prevention of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Rules, 2022 states, “the burden of proving innocence that the conversion was not affected through misrepresentation, use of force, under threat, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage or for marriage for the purpose of carrying out conversion shall be on the accused”.Expand
Now, let’s move on to how the laws have played out so far, and some key cases and trends that explain the primary bones of contention.
A Presumption of Guilt? Arrests Without Any Markers of Wrongdoing
Around a week after the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance came into effect in Uttar Pradesh in November 2020, one of the first cases filed under the new law was against a Muslim man named Rashid in Moradabad.
Rashid had married a woman named Muskan, who had converted to Islam, in Dehradun, where they worked. A few months after their marriage by religious customs, they were going to get the marriage registered in Rashid’s hometown of Kanth in Moradabad.
On 5 December 2020, Muskan went to meet a lawyer, to seek his help in getting her marriage to Rashid registered. She was accompanied by her mother-in-law Naseem Jahan and Rashid’s brother Saleem. The lawyer asked them to return in a while.
As they left his chambers and were walking back, they were suddenly accosted by a group of members of the Bajrang Dal.
A Bajrang Dal member thundered at Muskan, “Ye tum jaise logon ke liye banana pada hai (this law had to be made for people like you).” The police stood by and watched as Muskan was publicly harangued by the Bajrang Dal within the police station premises.
“I married of my own free will. We have been married for five months now”, she kept repeating. But her fervent protestations were of no avail – and were met with continued hostility.
What did the police do?
Under UP’s new anti-conversion law, the police arrested Rashid and his brother Saleem. By the police’s own admission, they had no evidence to back the arrests. But they went ahead with them anyway.
On 19 December 2020, Rashid and Saleem were released from a prison in Moradabad, as per court orders, after the UP Police submitted a report stating that it did not have any evidence of wrongdoing by either of them.
In the two weeks that Rashid spent in jail, his wife Muskan suffered a miscarriage under the most suspicious of circumstances. Muskan had been forcibly kept in a safe home by the police.
But the seemingly arbitrary and prejudicial arrest of Rashid in this case is not an exception under the new anti-conversion laws in UP and elsewhere. If anything, it is part of a much larger trend on how these laws have been playing out over the last few years.
In Bijnor, for example, a teenaged Muslim boy was arrested under this ‘anti-conversion’ law after he was found walking home from a birthday party with a female Hindu friend on 14 December 2020.
They were allegedly harassed and assaulted with sticks by a group of vigilantes, and then taken to a local police station. The accusation levelled against them by the goons? That they were guilty of ‘love jihad’.
But do the facts back such a claim? Not quite.
The two friends were former classmates, and were walking together of their own will.
While the police claimed that the boy is 18 years old, his family members maintained that he is 17. And the 16-year-old girl he was with has repeatedly asserted that all allegations of ‘love jihad’ are completely baseless. She told The Indian Express, “I have told this to the magistrate, and I will say this again. Those men had a problem with me walking with my friend. They made videos of me and are now calling it love jihad. I did nothing wrong. I went of my own free will.”
Despite all of this, the Muslim boy was booked:
under UP’s ‘anti-conversion’ law
on charges of abduction
under sections of the SC/ST Act (the girl is a Dalit)
and under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act
The FIR, which was registered allegedly on a complaint made by the girl’s father, states that the accused induced the girl to elope with him with the intention to marry and convert her. But the girl’s father has denied the complaint and even alleged that the police dictated his statement. The father asks, “What wrong did my daughter do? Is it unlawful for a boy and a girl to walk together now?”
The Muslim teen was sent to jail.Expand
Who’s the Complainant?
Referring to the ‘love jihad’ laws implemented in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, advocate Vrinda Grover argues that they will disproportionately affect women by diminishing their agency. She remarks, "In the garb of protecting women, these laws in effect strengthen patriarchal control over women’s lives and impede their sexual autonomy.”
To explain her point, she refers to the unusually large ambit of who can lodge a complaint under the anti-conversion law. The ordinance mentions that the persons who are competent to lodge an FIR under the law are the aggrieved person (the victim), their parents, brother, sister, or any other person who is related to them by blood, marriage or adoption.
Grover says, “If I have been fraudulently converted, it’s me who should be complaining. But here, a very wide range of family and relatives are allowed to file a complaint. So perhaps I’ve been able to convince my immediate family of my decision – but maybe one of my brothers or uncle does not agree. So that one male relative can veto my decision as an adult woman. He can trump my decision and go and file a complaint. An uncle, who may be holding some grudges and does not understand that we live in a constitutional republic, or does not believe in men and women having equal and independent decision-making rights, can go and file a complaint, and rupture the relationship. These laws in effect encourage and allow regressive, patriarchal, casteist and majoritarian forces to interfere in decisions of women, which is antithetical to the Constitution."
And true enough, after a month of the ‘love jihad’ law being implemented in UP, an India Today report found that out of the 14 cases that had been lodged under the law, the alleged ‘victim’ was the complainant in only two of the cases.Expand
Unbridled Vigilantism, Followed Up By Cops
Let’s look at another trend that the anti-conversion laws have amplified - widespread and unchecked vigilantism.
Look back no further than just a few days.
On 21 January 2023, a mob crashed a birthday party in Madhya Pradesh's Indore – and allegedly thrashed at least five Muslim men, claiming that they were indulging in 'love jihad'.
A 24-year-old Hindu woman was celebrating her birthday with her friends when the mob – reportedly led by members of the Bajrang Dal – allegedly barged into her flat and thrashed her male Muslim friends, accusing them of 'love jihad'. They then took them to Indore's MIG Colony police station where the police sent five of them to jail under Section 151 (any assembly of five or more persons likely to cause a disturbance of the public peace) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
In a video that went viral soon after it surfaced online, a masked man was caught beating one of the male friends inside the private residence. But no action has been taken against any members of the mob that entered the private residence and beat up the Muslim men.
The ‘love jihad’ narrative of the BJP received its biggest stamp of official sanction when various BJP governments began introducing anti-conversion laws and colloquially even referring to them as “love jihad laws.”
This has led to police forces in these states taking matters of purported ‘love jihad’ extremely seriously, even when it is reported to them by Hindutva vigilantes, such as in the case of the Indore violence.
This results in the vigilantes receiving no form of police action, while the Muslim men they report are almost always acted against. Even when the police have no evidence that there is any angle of ‘love jihad’ involved. For example, in the Indore case, Assistant Sub-Inspector Seema Sharma clarified to the media that a group of men and women were celebrating a friend's birthday – and that the girls involved in the matter "didn't file any complaint of love jihad".
Yet, Sharma said that the police would investigate the matter further.
Breaking into hotel rooms, assaulting people “to teach them a lesson”, breaking the law at will, how do right-wing vigilantes not fear the repercussions of their actions?
In the words of a Bajrang Dal vigilante-turned-BJP politician, it is because “Now, the police are helping us.”
In February 2020, after years of vigilantism and violence, Vivek Premi transitioned out of the Bajrang Dal and became a functionary of the BJP. He was given the responsibility of being a zila mantri (district-level party official) in Shamli.
Stressing on how much has changed since the BJP came to power, Premi says, “It is after a nationalist government came to power that the masses started becoming aware of ‘love jihad’. The situation now is very different from what it was 7-8 years ago. Today, the Hindu community understands."
The former vigilante adds, “We used to work on these issues before the BJP government came in too. If they wanted to file a case against us and send us to jail, they could do that. Our attitude was – “Apna kaam zindabad. Our work is what matters and it shall triumph.” But once the BJP came to power, it has helped us on this front as well. When we do our job now, there is no longer a fear that the police will act against us.”
But is this mere hyperbole by Premi or are the cops actually complicit in letting men like him run amok?
Seated in a police station in Moradabad, the Station House Officer (SHO) of the thana answers my query, “We, the police, may think that a certain Hindu-Muslim couple are in love with each other. But these organisations, which are involved in social work, get to the bottom of the matter and inform us that it is not love, but ‘love jihad’. Then after making some enquiries, we will send the man to jail. We may do the investigation on paper, but it is these organisations who actually find out what is going on. They help us in doing our job.”
And the SHO was no exception. Cops of varying ranks, whom we spoke to during our travels across Uttar Pradesh, concur that the vigilantes are merely assisting them in the fight against ‘love jihad’. No surprise then that the vigilantes don’t exactly fear law enforcement when they go about being self-styled enforcers.Expand
These are some of the trends that have emerged over the past few years of implementation of the various anti-conversion laws across India, which have been referred to as ‘the love jihad laws’ by the very politicians that have passed them.
Will the Supreme Court decide to take up the many petitions challenging these laws in several states? We’ll know soon enough.