Indian court grants reprieve to interfaith couples

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Madhya Pradesh High Court blocks state government from prosecuting couples under law banning religious conversions

An Indian Christian (right) wears a T-shirt with religious messages during a protest rally against an ordinance banning forced religious conversions in the southern Indian city of Bangalore on October 24. (Photo: AFP)

Posted: Nov 18, 2022 11:35 GMT

Updated: November 18, 2022 at 11:36 GMT

A top court in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has blocked the provincial government from prosecuting interfaith couples under a law that prohibits religious conversion for the purpose of marriage.

A divisional bench of the High Court of Madhya Pradesh in Jabalpur ordered on November 14 that “until further notice, the respondent [state government] shall not prosecute adult citizens if they solemnize the marriage of their own volition and shall not take coercive measures for violation of Article 10 of the [Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion] law of 2021.

The bench of Judge Sujoy Paul and Judge Prakash Chandra Gupta said that “a strong prima facie case is established by the petitioners” against any coercive action.

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The court was hearing a batch of seven petitions seeking to strike down certain provisions of the Anti-Conversion Law that gave authorities “unbridled, embodied and arbitrary powers” while invoking the fundamental rights of citizens to practice a religion and marry a person of their choice. of caste and religion.

“Every citizen has a precious right not to divulge his belief. Citizens are not required to disclose their religion or their intention to change to another religion. Religious belief is a personal matter for a citizen. The state has no right to compel a citizen to divulge his personal beliefs,” the petitioners pleaded.

They further stated that disclosing religion or intending to change religion may endanger the life and physical integrity of the person concerned and also disturb social harmony.

“The ‘burden of proof’ rests on the shoulders of a convert or a person who has violated the provisions of the impugned law. This goes against the established principle of criminal case law. If these provisions are allowed to continue, it will have a ‘chilling effect’ on citizens,” the petitioners said.

Attorney General Prashant Singh, who has argued for the state government, pleaded with the court to dismiss the petitions, saying they were vague and baseless.

The court, however, rejected his argument and ordered the state government to file its response to the issues raised in the motions within three weeks.

Richard James, one of the petitioners, told UCA News on November 18 that “we are satisfied with the interim order” and expressed hope that the same will be reflected in the final order as well.

Section 10 of the Madhya Pradesh Anti-Conversion Act 2021 requires persons who wish to convert to another religion due to marriage or other reasons to notify the District Magistrate at least 60 days at the advance.

Those who wish to change their religion are also required to commit in writing to convert “of their own free will and without any force, coercion, undue influence of attraction”.

Those who break the law are liable to prosecution and incur a five-year prison sentence and a fine.

The state’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has criminalized religious conversions, especially of Hindu girls wishing to marry outside their religion.

The 2021 law replaced an older version enacted in 1968 with tougher penalties and harsher penalties for changing religion.

Christians and Muslims in the state say the new law is being used to target them and hope the court will bring them relief.

Christians make up less than 1% while Muslims 7% of the roughly 71 million people in the Hindu-majority state.

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