Karnataka takes ordinance route to introduce anti-conversion law

The BJP government in Karnataka has decided to take the ordinance route to introduce the contentious anti-conversion law in the state

The anti-conversion bill, called the Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Bill 2021, was introduced in the state legislature in December 2021 and has not been tabled in the state legislative council yet even after passage by the Assembly.

A Cabinet meeting headed by Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai on Thursday approved a proposal for the issuance of the bill as an ordinance to facilitate the immediate introduction of an anti-conversion law.

“The decision was taken because there is no clarity on when the legislative council will meet again. The ordinance will be in place until a bill is placed in the council whenever it meets again,” Law Minister J C Madhuswamy said following the Cabinet meeting.

The Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Bill 2021 was passed amid objections from the opposition Congress party. The Bill aims to fulfil two demands of the core support base of the BJP government in the state — prevention of forced religious conversions and unauthorized inter-religious marriages.

It was, however, not tabled in the legislative council (the upper house) in the winter session last year and two sessions this year on account of the BJP fearing the defeat of the Bill in the 75-member council where the combined opposition — the Congress and JDS — has 41 members and the BJP 32.

The BJP gained five seats in legislative council polls held in December 2021 but did not get a clear majority on account of the Opposition losing only four seats. The BJP is expected to get a clear majority in the council when polls for seven seats are held on June 3 — on account of its majority in the Assembly.

Despite a monsoon session of the legislature scheduled in June-July, the BJP has chosen the ordinance route to introduce the anti-conversion law after keeping the Bill in abeyance for many months through a special session in February and a Budget session in March.

When the Bill was introduced in the Assembly last year, Congress leader and former CM Siddaramaiah said that it was identical to the Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat laws which had encountered legal questions. Siddaramaiah argued that there was no need for an anti-conversion Bill since section 295 (a) of the Indian Penal Code already prevents the outraging of religious feelings.

Chief Minister Bommai had argued that the law was intended to prevent the abuse of vulnerable sections of society and that it was not intended to target any religion.

The proposed ordinance to ban conversions will be a replica of the Karnataka Right to Freedom of Religion Bill 2021. “No person shall convert or attempt to convert either directly or otherwise any other person from one religion to another by use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage, nor shall any person abet or conspire for conversions,” the Bill reads.

According to the proposed law, complaints of conversions can be filed by family members, people who are related or even a colleague of the person who is getting converted.

A jail term of 3-5 years, and a fine of Rs 25,000 has been proposed for people violating the law in the case of people from the general categories, and a jail term of 3-10 years, and a fine of Rs 50,000 for people converting minors, women and persons from the SC and ST communities.

In case of marriages where religious conversions have taken place for the convenience of marriage, the marriage will have legal recognition only if the conversion was brought to the notice of a district magistrate 30 days in advance or 30 days post conversion.

In the run up to the introduction of the law in the assembly last year, right-wing groups had carried out as many 39 attacks on churches and prayer halls of Christians, according to data collated by the United Christian Forum and the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties. Cases were filed in some of the cases against the Christian groups on charges under the Indian Penal Code sections for promoting enmity between religious groups and outraging religious feelings.

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