MP cabinet approves Freedom to Religion Bill 2020 as ordinance

The Madhya Pradesh government Tuesday approved the Freedom to Religion Bill 2020 as an ordinance in a special cabinet session, after which it was sent to the Governor for her nod.

The state government has taken the ordinance route much like the Uttar Pradesh government to clear its stringent law prohibiting forced religious conversion under its Freedom to Religion Bill 2020. This comes after the three-day session of the assembly was cancelled owing to high cases of COVID-19 being reported.

The three-day assembly session was cancelled by a joint committee of all leaders on Sunday night after about 60 people including officials, employees and five MLAs had tested positive for COVID-19.

Claiming to curb religious conversions using misrepresentation, allurement, force, threat, undue influence, coercion, marriage or any other “fraudulent means”, the MP Bill stipulates jail terms of one to five years, with a fine of Rs 25,000, in such cases. The penalty in case of a person using “misrepresentation” or “impersonation” for religious conversion will be higher, including a jail term of 3-10 years and a fine of Rs 50,000.

In contrast, the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, passed last month, says religious conversion using any of the above means, including misrepresentation and impersonation, would entail a jail term of one to five years and a fine of Rs 15,000.

In a significant departure from the UP ordinance though on registration of FIRs in such cases, the MP Bill says these can be dealt with only by police personnel not less than the rank of a sub-inspector, and that solely parents and siblings of the affected individual can file a complaint directly. In case a guardian or a custodian wants to register an offence, they must approach a Sessions Court authorised to deal in these matters and get a court order.

The other big departure between the MP Bill and UP law is the provision for maintenance to women and rights to the property to children in the marriage under question in the legislation planned by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. The matter of maintenance will be dealt with as per Section 125 of the CrPC.

In both states, marriages proved to have been undertaken for the sole purpose of a religious conversion or conducted without appropriate notice to the district administration can be declared null and void by family courts.

Return to one’s original religion — as in the religion one is born into or that practiced by one’s father — will not be counted as a conversion.

While both UP law and MP Bill envisage a jail term of two to ten years in case a person being converted is a minor, or belongs to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, the MP legislation talks of a penalty of Rs 50,000 against Rs 25,000 in UP.

Both the legislations talk of three to five years of prison terms for religious organisations or individuals seen as carrying out mass conversions, but again the penalty in MP is higher (Rs 1 lakh) than UP (Rs 50,000).

In both states, organisations or priests carrying out conversions have to inform the district administration about 60 days before the date of conversion, failing which the organisation can have its registration cancelled and the priest or facilitator face a jail term. But the MP Bill stipulates a higher penalty again (of Rs 50,000, and 3-5 years’ jail term) in such cases, compared to one year extended up to five years and Rs 25,000 in UP.


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