Uttar Pradesh calls its latest law ‘Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religious Ordinance.’ However, regardless of the legal terminologies, law experts describe it as an encroachment of the fundamental rights as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The law not only denies adults their agency but also considers women’s choice a joke, enforces patriarchy, and grants powers to local outfits (mostly Hindu right-wing groups) to report, protest, and stop such “forceful conversions.”
Moreover, other states have started efforts to replicate or recreate the entire issue. Assam plans to bring another law into effect. As per the proposed law, couples (not entirely interfaith) have to report their marriage one month before the wedding. In their application, they will have to disclose their religion, address, income, family information and many more.
Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said, “Assam’s law is not against love jihad. It would be inclusive of all religions and would empower our sisters by bringing transparency. One will have to disclose not only their religion but also their income source. Many times, even in same-religion marriage, we have found that the girl later finds that the husband had initiated the marriage using false pretexts.” However, a close reading of the proposed law with the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, the proposed marriage amendment seems suspect.
On the other hand, Madhya Pradesh, feeling legally and creatively lazy, has decided to take the UP ordinance and make slight changes to it so as not to get caught by critics. They have also empowered the blood relatives of the “victim” to report the conversion. Meanwhile, Karnataka plans to propose an amendment on similar lines, and they have scheduled it to present it alongside an anti-cow slaughter bill.
The UP police had already booked a person, hours after the law had passed, and now they have allowed Bajrang Dal to do their jobs. The Hindu militant outfit had dragged an interfaith couple who had arrived at a Court at Moradabad to register their marriage to the nearest police station. Interestingly, while the couple had done all of this exercising their choice, the Bajrang Dal and the police think that their choice is immaterial. The police booked a case after the girl had submitted evidence for her conversion and name change. The problem was, while the girl was trying to prove that she had made the conversion by choice, the man couldn’t prove that the conversion wasn’t for the sole purpose of a wedding.
The Constitution grants us the individual right to choose our religion and our partner for marriage. Both rights are inalienable and must be protected. However, while not fully detrimental, the UP ordinance places a large blockade in front of that — a sort of maze-like structure. The ordinance doesn’t truly ban interfaith marriages, but it creates so many hindrances and political red tapes that discourage the phenomenon.
The ordinance also, unofficially, empowers and encourages Hindu militant outfits to report on such affairs as seen in the efforts of Bajrang Dal. This is also common among local and smaller outfits that have been working “hard” trying to “save” the “poor” Hindu girls “trapped” by “dangerous” Muslim men. The whole process somehow seems streamlined now. In another matter, the legal burdens have been switched as well. In most cases, the burden of proof lies on the claimant, and in this case, the government should have been the one to prove if the conversion had been “unlawful” as per definitions. However, specific sub-sections of the ordinance put this burden on top of the accused (it is usually the groom).
In this case, the accused will have to prove in court that he did not coerce the girl into changing the religion and that the girl did not change religion for the exclusive purpose of marriage. The problem is, the girl’s opinion is moot, and the people who made the law claim to do this in the name of protecting women. Agency is made a joke in the whole process, leaving the “protection” of the women’s rights to the uncles and brothers in the police, politics, and various local outfits.
In another scenario, we see that the ordinance is a challenge to secularism’s safety. Eminent social scholars such as Periyar Ramaswamy and BR Ambedkar had expressed that Hinduism and its inherent caste structures can never truly vanish unless inter-caste marriages become the norm. Moreover, some took the same argument a step forward and argued that inter-faith marriages effectively reduce religious disharmony. The policymakers had claimed that the law would only target forced conversions. Recently, police had stopped a wedding in Lucknow, citing forced conversion. However, religious conversion was not even a question at the event. Parents of both the couple (the bride is a Hindu and the groom is a Muslim) had given their consent to the marriage.
In this case, the police had no investigative venue. Conversions had to be reported to the District Magistrate at least two months in advance, and they shouldn’t be for the sole purpose of marriage. There was no conversion and thus no case, yet the police were here, and they had to satisfy with stopping a marriage that was happening as per the Special Marriages Act. The police had arrived after the Hindu Yuva Vahini had reported the incident to them. The Yuva Vahini was founded by the UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
The UP act does not add to the discourse surrounding the issues, instead, it creates more hurdles for individuals to enjoy their liberty and freedom. Moreover, the act indirectly enforces, encourages, and legitimises the efforts of small and large political outfits to discourage, heckle, harass, and interfere in the private matters of two consenting adults. The act is a travesty on social justice and invalidates consent, agency, and rights in the name of “protecting women”. In essence, they have used a constitutionally produced piece of legislation to invalidate the rights enshrined in the Constitution.