February 22, 2011
SHIMLA (Himachal Pradesh): The High Court of the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh today admitted a petition filed by the New Delhi-based Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) challenging the constitutional validity of that state’s Freedom of Religion Act, commonly known as the “anti-conversion law.”
Admitting the petition, the Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh High Court, Justice Kurian Joseph, and Justice Sanjay Karol scheduled the first hearing for June 14.
The EFI, headed by Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, and co-petitioner Anhad (Act Now for Harmony And Democracy), led by Ms. Shabnam Hashmi, argued in the petition that the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act of 2006 violated the right to privacy under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, the right to free practise of religion under Article 25, and the freedom of speech and expression under Article 19.
Filed by Advocate Aman Sood, the petition was drafted by Advocates Robin David, Pramod Singh and Loreign Ovung, members of the Christian Legal Association of India; Advocates Tehmina Arora and Shruti Agrawal from the EFI, and Advocate Munawwar Naseem. Law students Dhiraj Philip, Febin Mathew and Abhishek Jebaraj helped in the research.
Since the Supreme Court of India upheld the anti-conversion legislation in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa in 1977 – during the time of the Emergency Rule under then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – it is the second petition against the legislation a court has admitted. In 2009, the Gujarat High Court admitted a similar petition by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India challenging the Gujarat state’s anti-conversion law – a hearing is yet to be scheduled.
The 1977 judgment in the Rev Stanislaus vs. Madhya Pradesh case (AIR 1977 SC 908) looked into whether the right to practice and propagate also included the right to convert.
Section 4(1) of the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act of 2006 requires any person wishing to convert to another religion to give a prior notice of at least 30 days to district authorities, while exempting those “converting back” to their “own religion,” which can be read as Hinduism.
Section 3 of the Act prohibits conversion “by the use of force or by inducement or by any other fraudulent means” and states that a person who is converted by unfair means shall not be considered converted. Thus, it excludes from its ambit “reconversion” ceremonies, which are routinely conducted among Christian converts by Rightwing Hindu groups.
According to Section 5, an offence under Section 3 is punishable with imprisonment up to two years and/or a fine up to 25,000 rupees. In case of conversion of a minor, woman, Dalit or tribal, the imprisonment can extend to three years and the fine up to 50,000 rupees.
The rules under the Act were published on August 29 in the official government journal, bringing the law into force.
The Himachal Pradesh legislation is the first anti-conversion law enacted by the Congress Party – though it otherwise claims to promote religious pluralism in the country – in recent years. Most of the anti-conversion bills and bills to amend existing anti-conversion laws were passed by Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party governments.
The Himachal Pradesh state assembly House introduced the bill, led by then Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, on December 30, 2006.
The anti-conversion laws are currently in force in five Indian states: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. Although some of these laws have been in force for over four decades, no court is known to have convicted any person of “forced” or “fraudulent” conversions until today.