The Himachal Pradesh assembly on Friday unanimously passed a bill to check forced religious conversions by providing for imprisonment up to seven years and also making it mandatory to declare conversions one month in advance.
Cutting across party lines, both the ruling BJP and the Congress passed the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2019, with the latter initially expressing some reservations over the need to bring the bill as there was already an existing legislation that was brought by its government in 2006. Lone CPI-M MLA Rakesh Singha, however, expressed apprehensions over certain provisions in the bill.
Earlier, Congress legislator Jagat Singh Negi said there was no need to bring this bill. "You can bring an amendment bill for the existing act. Your intention to bring the bill seems to be doubtful," he said.
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As per this bill, anybody abetting or conspiring in such conversions would face imprisonment from one to five years. The term will be between two to seven years if dalits, women or minors are forced to convert. Any marriage for the sole purpose of conversion will also be declared null and void under Section 5 of the bill.
Section 7 of the bill states that a person wanting to convert will give a declaration on a prescribed form at least one month in advance to the district magistrate, stating that he is converting on his own. This condition would not apply to those reconverting to their parent religion.
Stating that the new act will be more stringent, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur said, "We are not able to stop religious conversions after that act was passed in 2006, as no case was registered so far despite several cases of religious conversions coming to light. The previous act needed ten amendments, so we decided to bring a new bill."
"It has been observed that there is a rise in conversions by fraudulent means and unless checked well in time, this practice may erode the confidence and mutual trust between the different ethnic and religious groups. In case forcible conversions are not prohibited, it would create public disorder," he said.
Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Suresh Bhardwaj said in the previous act there was a provision of two to three years in jail. In this bill, there is a provision of jail up to seven years.
The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2019 was introduced by CM Thakur on Thursday in the assembly.