Guest post by Pallavi Mohan
Recently the High Court of Madhya Pradesh directed the MP authorities not to take coercive steps against any individual who converted to a different religion without informing the district administration. The requirement for providing this information arises from the existing MP anti-conversion law.
What is MP’s anti-conversion law?
In 2021, the Madhya Pradesh legislature enacted the MP Freedom of Religion Act, 2021. Some features of the Act are:
- conversion by misrepresentation, allurement, use of threat or force, undue influence, coercion or marriage is prohibited (Section 3).
- any marriage performed intending to convert a person will be void if conversion is intended through misrepresentation, allurement, use of threat or force, undue influence, or coercion (Section 6).
- anyone seeking to convert or any person/priest performing the conversion must inform the District Administration at least 60 days in advance (Section 10).
The Act also lists the punishments for not following these provisions.
Legislatures of several other states—Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Haryana—have already enacted or are considering enacting similar anti-conversion laws for their states.
Why was MP’s anti-conversion law challenged in the High Court?
Many people filed writ petitions before the MP High Court challenging the constitutional validity of various provisions of the MP Freedom of Religion Act, 2021, including Section 10 which requires informing the District Administration in case of a conversion.
The principal arguments against the Act were that:
- the Act restricts the right of citizens to profess, practice and propagate the religion of their choice granted by the Constitution (Article 25) which includes the freedom to marry a person of a religion of their choice;
- the Act gives arbitrary powers to authorities to prosecute citizens exercising the freedom of religion that the Constitution grants to them;
- the provisions of the Act are a threat to social harmony and are likely to cause communal tension.
Why is the MP High Court’s order significant?
Even though, presently, the MP High Court has restrained authorities from taking coercive steps only while the case is pending before it, the reasoning of the Court in passing this order is significant. The validity of an earlier, somewhat similar “freedom of religion” law (Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantraya Adhiniyam, 1968) had been challenged in the Supreme Court and had been upheld. Therefore, the question of the maintainability of the present petition was raised. The Court observed that the new law has to be tested on the touchstone of not only freedom of religion but also the right to privacy of an individual. So, the petition is maintainable.
Proceeding on this line of reasoning, the Court observed that the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the right of two adults to solemnise marriage is a matter of choice and is integral to Article 21 of the Constitution [Lata Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh (2006) 5 SCC 475; K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India 2017(10) SCC 1; Laxmibai Chandaragi B. v. State of Karnataka 2021 (3) SCC 360]. Marriage, sexual orientation and choice lie in the realm of privacy and dignity of an individual. The Court was of the view that the requirement under Section 10 to disclose an intention to convert to district authorities is contrary to that individual’s right to privacy.
The High Courts of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh have taken similar stands in challenges concerning their state’s respective anti-conversion laws.