The Freedom of Religion Act 2003 Bill was passed by the Gujarat Assembly. The bill criminalizes forced or fraudulent religious conversion through marriage. Gujarat is the third state, following Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, to pass legislation prohibiting forcible conversion through marriage.
If the accused is found guilty, the Bill provides for 3-10 years in prison and a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh. While the bill was cleared after a day of debate in the state Assembly, Congress MLA Imran Khedawala sparked a scuffle by tearing a copy of it.
The bill amends a 2003 law that makes religious conversion through coercion or allurement illegal.
According to the government, the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2021 aimed to curb a “emerging trend in which women are enticed to marry for the purpose of religious conversion.”
The bill was defeated by the main opposition in Congress.
Similar laws prohibiting ‘fraudulent’ conversions through marriage have recently been enacted in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
According to the amendment, forcible “conversion by marriage, or by getting a person married, or by assisting a person to get married” will result in a three to five-year prison sentence and a fine of up to Rs 2 lakh. If the victim is a minor, a woman, a Dalit, or a tribal, the offender faces a prison sentence of four to seven years and a fine of not less than Rs 3 lakh.
If an organization violates the law, the person in charge faces a minimum of three years in prison and a maximum of ten years in prison. In such cases, a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh may be imposed. After a full day of debate in the House, the bill was passed. During the bill’s introduction in the House, Minister of State for Home Pradeepsinh Jadeja stated that “love Jihad is a hidden agenda behind religious conversions,” and cited alleged incidents in Gujarat and elsewhere.
According to Paresh Dhanani, the Leader of the Opposition, love has no regard for religion or caste. Members of the BJP demanded that Speaker Rajendra Trivedi take action against him. However, Khedawala later apologized, so the Speaker did not take any action.
A marriage solemnized for the purpose of unlawful conversion will also be declared void by a court, according to the amendment.
The accused person bears the burden of proving his or her innocence. Under the law, any aggrieved person, his or her parents, siblings, or any other person related by blood, marriage, or adoption may file a FIR. The offences under the Act will be cognisable and non-bailable, and no officer will be assigned to investigate them.
The amendment also defines “allurement” as promising “better lifestyle, divine blessings, or otherwise”. The BJP government had said it was necessary to prohibit “forcible conversion by marriage” and hence section 3 of the Act needed to be amended.
“The Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003 seeks to deal with religious conversion through allurement, force or by misrepresentation or by any other fraudulent means. However, there are episodes of religious conversion promising better lifestyle, divine blessings and impersonation,” as per the government’s statement.