From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : A25, A21
Mains level : Anti-Conversion Law
The Gujarat High Court this week stayed key provisions of The Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021 pertaining to marriages involving religious conversion of either of the two parties.
What is the Anti-Conversion Law?
- The legislation has amended the 2003 Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act.
- The amendment was brought in line with several similar laws enacted last year by right-wing-ruled states, starting with Uttar Pradesh.
- The laws seek to end conversion through unlawful means, specifically prohibit any conversion for marriage, even if it is with the consent of the individual except when a prior sanction is obtained from the state.
- Apart from UP and Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh too, have also enacted similar laws.
- Vagueness: It gives powers to the state to conduct a police inquiry to verify the intentions of the parties to convert for the purposes of marriage.
- Burden of proof: Section 6A reverses the burden of proof on the partner of the converted spouse to prove that he/she did not coerce the other spouse.
- Intent of marriage: Section 4 allows the aggrieved person, their parents, brother, sister, or any other person related by blood or marriage or adoption to file an FIR challenging the conversion and subsequent marriage.
- Conversion as Allurement: The law considers lawful conversions as “allurement” in vague.
- Discrimination: It defines over-broad terms; prescribes different jail terms based on gender; and legitimizes the intrusion of family and the society at large to oppose inter-faith marriages.
Issues with such laws
- Stereotyping of lawful conversion: The new anti-conversion laws shift the burden of proof of a lawful religious conversion from the converted to his/her partner.
- Curb on individual freedom: Legal experts have pointed out that the laws interfere in an individual’s agency to marry a partner from different faith and to choose to convert from one’s religion for that purpose.
- Interference of state: Apart from being vague and sweeping, the laws also test the limits to which the state can interfere in the personal affairs of individuals.
- Violative of FRs: The freedom to propagate one’s religion (A25) and the right to choose a partner are fundamental rights (A21) that the new anti-conversion laws impinge upon.
What has the Gujarat High Court held?
- A Division Bench of the Gujarat High Court has granted an interim stay on certain provisions of the amendment that interfere with inter-faith marriages.
- It has held that the bill interferes with the intricacies of marriage including the right to the choice of an individual, thereby infringing Article 21.
- The interim stay on certain provisions will have to be confirmed when the larger challenge is decided.
What was the government’s defence?
- The state government had argued that the law did not prohibit all inter-faith marriages, but only the ones based on fraud and coercion.
- To buttress its submission, Advocate General had argued that the Act must be read as a whole to interpret the provision, and the provision alone could not be read by itself.
- However, the court said that the wider interpretation would happen at a later stage, and stayed the provisions for the time being. A larger challenge would determine the fate of the law eventually.
Significance of the ruling
- The HC ruling, although preliminary, comes as a relief to interfaith couples from being harassed.
- The reading could have a bearing on challenges pending in other HCs (namely in MP, UP, Himachal etc).
- However, its real impact on the ground could be limited, as larger constitutional nuances are often difficult to permeate, especially when it is not a final and binding verdict.