In the run up to next year's Lok Sabha elections, a wave of opposition is rising against laws targeting forced religious conversions in various states introduced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Critics, many rival political factions, denounce these regulations as "anti-minority", suggesting they disproportionately target the Muslim and Christian communities. These debates have woven themselves deeply into the fabric of political and social discussions, particularly when critiquing the BJP's strategies.
In Karnataka, the Congress Party made overturning the legislation enacted by the BJP in 2022 a poll promise ahead of the state assembly elections this year. The Congress, the principal opposition party at the national level, has also been vocal about its dissent concerning the law in several BJP-ruled states.
It was the Uttar Pradesh government, helmed by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath of the BJP, that magnified this issue to the national spotlight. The state passed the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act in November 2020, a move that attracted significant attention and debate.
CM Adityanath further stirred a debate when he dubbed the law a protective measure against 'love jihad,' a term that in itself is contentious and has stoked political fires.
While the political arena is divided over the issue, a genuine societal need for such a legislation has arisen frequently. This sentiment is backed by police complaints from victims, primarily women, alleging coercive conversions through love relationships formed through identity fraud.
The latest such case has emerged from the state’s Ayodhya district.
A Hindu woman's distressing allegations of forced circumcision of son
Last week, a woman filed a police case against her second husband for forcibly converting her to his religion and trying to get her son from her previous marriage circumcised as per Islamic custom.
The woman, Malti, who is from a scheduled caste and a native of Gorakhpur, accused a man named Shahnewaz of trapping her in a relationship by posing as a Hindu named Dilip. As per Malti’s complaint to the police, Shahnewaz posed as Dilip and entered a relationship with her. Both were living in Mumbai that time. They even married as per Hindu rituals in a temple in Mumbai.
A few days after this temple wedding, Dilip took her to his village in Ayodhya, named Bhaggu Jalalpur. There, she discovered to her shock that the man was, in reality, a Muslim and not Hindu and that Dilip was just a fictional name. His actual name was Shahnewaz.
While she was still coming to terms with the facts, Shahnewaz’s family arranged a nikah ceremony by calling a cleric to solemnise the relationship as per their religion. The nikah involved Malti’s conversion to Islam, and she was made to sign on a paper inscribed in Urdu declaring it. She told Swarajya she was also made to recite the Kalma or verbal profession of Islamic faith.
Malti tolerated it, but raised a protest when the family tried to get her 13-year-son from her previous marriage circumcised.
Before Shahnewaz, Malti was married in an arranged union to a man named Vinod. The couple had a 13-year-old son, and Malti was pregnant with a child when Vinod died in an accident. She later gave birth to a daughter.
Malti told Swarajya that she did not allow her son to be circumcised, and was soon kicked out of Shahnewaz’s house for her protests.
After her complaint, Kotwali Bikapur police station in Ayodhya filed a case against Shahnewaz and booked him under IPC section, 323 (voluntarily causing hurt) and sections 3 and 5(1) of the Uttar Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act (FIR number 406/2023 filed on 13 August).
Station House Officer Rajesh Kumar Rai of Kotwali Bikapur told Swarajya that the accused has been arrested and under judicial custody.
Malti, meanwhile, is staying in a government shelter. She says she has been receiving threats from Shahnewaz’s family including his sister to withdraw the case else there would be consequences.
Societal need for anti-conversion law versus political narrative
Cases of this nature have come to the public light frequently ever since the law was enacted, suggesting there exists a pattern of such crimes.
In an eerily similar case reported earlier from UP’s Ghaziabad district, a Hindu woman named Pinki accused her second husband of forcibly getting her son from previous marriage circumcised. Pinki said that her first husband had abandoned her when she came in contact with a man who introduced himself as Guddu. While she assumed he was Hindu, she later learnt that he was a Musli named Sablu. They started living together.
When she visited his house, the family arranged for a nikah ceremony and got her son circumcised (FIR number 703/2022 registered at Nandgram police station in Ghaziabad on 19 July, 2022).
In that case, the police booked Sablu under IPC sections 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 326 (causing grievous hurt), 295-A (outraging religious feelings), sections 3 and 5(1) of the Uttar Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 along with the section 75 and 80 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offense (POCSO) Act, 2015.
Before that, a similar case was reported from UP’s Rampur district where the second husband of a Sikh woman was arrested for forcibly getting her sons from her previous marriage circumcised. The boys developed complications after the procedure carried out by a quack, and had to be hospitalised. Curiously, cases of the same pattern have been reported from different states, including those that do not have an anti-conversion law in place.
The concept of forced conversion — coercing an individual, through various means, to change their religious beliefs — is not unique to India. Such practices have been reported across the world, leading to human rights concerns and widespread condemnation.
It underscores the need for protective legislation, rooted in a society's commitment to ensuring the freedom and dignity of every individual. As such, laws against forced conversions can be seen as an important tool to protect vulnerable populations and maintain social harmony.
In India, a prominent democracy with a deeply diverse fabric, ensuring the right to religious freedom and preventing coercion is paramount. There's a documented social need for these laws, brought out by numerous cases where individuals, particularly women, complained of being forced into converting under duress or deceit. Legislation that counters such coercive practices can be viewed as an affirmation of the nation's commitment to upholding the rights and freedoms of its citizens.
It's essential to differentiate between the objective need for a law and the political narrative around it. The recent Ayodhya case, yet again, highlights the social need.
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