The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020 adversely affects freedom to convert one’s religion: November 2020

December 10, 2020

A total of 23 incidents were reported in the month of November, 2020, with 7 incidents being reported from the state of Uttar Pradesh and 5 from Chhattisgarh. The nature of incidents ranged from severe physical assaults to complaints against pastors of conducting religious conversions.

For instance, on 15th November, 2020, as the prayer service was being concluded in a church situated at Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, the pastor was summoned at the police station. The police warned the pastor not to invite people who are not related to him to attend prayer services and has forbidden him from holding prayer services from now on.

Similarly, on 16th November, a group of 12 religious extremists barged into a wedding ceremony being led by a pastor in a church situated at Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. The extremists hurled abuses at the pastor and threatened all who were present there. They disrupted the wedding ceremony and sent the pastor away. The following day, the group of extremists visited the pastor at his home and forbade him from holding prayer services anymore threatening to kill him if he does.

Another incident took place on 24th November, 2020 when a group of religious extremists barged into a church situated at Baliya, Uttar Pradesh as prayer services were taking place. They accused the pastor of doing forceful religious conversions and severely assaulted the pastor. Thereafter, the assailants called the police who came and detained the pastor. The pastor was only released the next day and no action was taken against the assailants.

Similar incidents were also reported in Karnataka and Chhattisgarh. However, with the coming into force of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020 (Ordinance) the situation is likely to be more cumbersome for Christian pastors and faithful in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is pertinent to note here that the U.P. Ordinance is unconstitutional and is therefore liable to be struck down by the High Courts or the Supreme Court as it violates the Articles 14, 15, 19, 21 and 25 of the Constitution of India on the grounds that it discriminates against men and women in their right to convert to a religion of their choice in imposing an enhanced punishment if the convertee is a woman or member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe. Furthermore, it imposes severe restrictions on people who wish share the values of their faith, or in other words propagate their faith, which is a fundamental right guaranteed to all by the Constitution, since gifting a Bible to a person of another faith is seen as “allurement” which renders the conversion illegal.

The procedure laid out to effect a religious conversion violates the right to privacy of an individual as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Furthermore, it casts a restriction on a person to marry as per his/her choice by declaring the marriage void merely on the grounds of religious conversion, if one of the parties to the marriage brings a petition to that effect.

However, due to the apparent arbitrariness of the law, there are only two ways to go about this problem, the first and highly recommended method is to challenge the Ordinance before a court of law and have it struck down and the second way out is to follow it while it lasts. To that end it is important to note the features of the new law, which are as follows:

  1. Anyone who wishes to convert his or her religion is required to give notice to the District Magistrate (DM) 60 days prior to converting his or faith by a conversion ceremony. If found in violation of this requirement, the convertee shall be liable to be punished with imprisonment of 6 months which may extend upto 3 years and fine of Rs. 10,000/-. The format is given in Schedule 1 of the Ordinance which requires the person to divulge personal information;
  2. The convertee should also give a notice to the DM 60 days after the conversion ceremony has taken place in the format given in Schedule 3 of the Ordinance. Failure to do so shall also be punished with imprisonment for a term of 6 months extendable upto 3 years and fine of Rs. 10,000/-;
  3. The person who converts another person to his/her religion, i.e. the religious priest is required to give a notice to the DM of the religious conversion, one month before the conversion takes place, in the format given in Schedule 2 of the Ordinance. Failure to do so will entail punishment with imprisonment for one year which may extend to five years and a fine of Rs. 25,000/-.
  4. These notices that are given to the DM shall be subject to enquiry and objections as it would be on public display in the concerned DM’s Notice Board.

Other offences under the Act are conversions by force, fraud or allurement, the definitions of which are vague and susceptible to being misused by police officials and/or religious extremists who wish to target innocent people for professing a faith different from their own. Punishments for religious conversions effected by “force”, “fraudulent means” or “allurement” among others, is greater if the convertee is a women or member of the SC/ST community or if mass religious conversion has taken place.