Allahabad High Court’s narrow interpretation of anti-conversion law squeezes two out on bail

Giving a strict interpretation to the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, the high court held that “person aggrieved” cannot be read in isolation so as to give locus to any person not connected with the incident. 

THE Allahabad High Court on Wednesday granted bail to two Christian persons accused of violating Uttar Pradesh’s anti-conversion Act.

While granting bail to Jose Papachen and Sheeja, the Lucknow Bench of the high court gave a narrow interpretation to the provisions of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Conversion of Religion Act, 2021

The accused were booked under Section 3 of the Act which prohibits inducing a person to convert from one religion to another through the use or practice of “misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means”.

The high court held that the act of distributing copies of the Bible, encouraging education of children, organising a bhandara (community kitchen), asking people to refrain from altercations or consumption of liquor cannot constitute an offence under the anti-conversion Act.

The application for bail was opposed by the state counsel, who argued that the case pertains to mass conversions and that the accused use “psychological pressure for forceful conversions” as part of their plan to set up a Christian State in India.

The Order was delivered by Justice Shamim Ahmed of the high court on September 6.

The high court also held that the complainant in the case, who is zila mantri (district head) of Ambedkar Nagar, Uttar Pradesh and belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party, did not have the locus to file a first information report (FIR) under the anti-conversion Act.

In a statement released today by the United Christian Forum, an organisation that compiles data on atrocities against Christians in India, it has been claimed that 520 members of the community have been accused of forced conversions “without any proven evidence”.

Arguments and counter

The accused submitted that they have been in jail since January 24 this year; have no previous criminal history; are ready to cooperate with the trial and that there is no possibility of intimidating or pressurising witnesses or or any other persons acquainted with the facts of the case.

The accused contended that they have been falsely implicated in the case due to political rivalry and “that the complainant’s aim was to gain political mileage through this case.”

While requesting for bail, it was submitted by the complainants that in view of the heavy pendency of cases, there is no likelihood of any early conclusion of trial.

In their defence, the accused relied on statements by fellow villagers recorded under Section 161 (Examination of witnesses by police) who stated that the accused used to distribute copies of the Bible, give them “good teachings”, and encouraged them to educate their children, among other things.

The additional advocate general of the state “vehemently opposed” the prayer for bail, the high court’s Order notes.

Opposing the bail, it was argued that the case concerns “mass religious conversions within the State of Uttar Pradesh from Hindu religion to Christianity through illicit means.”

‘Only personally aggrieved parties’

Section 4 of the Act specifies who will be considered as competent to lodge an FIR for an unlawful conversion.

It says that “any aggrieved person”, their parents, siblings or any other person related by blood, marriage or adoption may file an FIR in this regard.

The high court, while interpreting this provision, stated that the words “any aggrieved person” at the outset of the provision cannot be read in isolation.

Noting the category of persons is expressly specified in the provision, the high court observed that “the scope of the provision is completely whittled down by subsequent categories”.

The complainant has to be a person “personally aggrieved by (their) fraudulent conversion” and any interpretation to the contrary would render the remainder of the provision “wholly redundant” and the provision itself “completely meaningless”, the high court said.

Since the complainant in the case was not an “aggrieved person” or related to them through blood, marriage or adoption, the high court concluded that they had no locus to file the FIR.

‘No proof of mass conversion’

Dismissing the state’s argument about mass religious conversions in the state, the high court concluded that there does not appear to be any material to show that the accused had used undue influence or allurement for mass conversions.

Rather appellants were involved in providing good teachings to children and promoting the spirit of brotherhood amongst the villagers and there does not appear to be existence of any material which would suggest conversion by use of force,” the court said.

While granting bail, the high court considered the “overall view of all the facts”, the nature of evidence, the period of detention already undergone, the unlikelihood of early conclusion of trial and the absence of any material indicating the possibility of tampering with the evidence.

The high court accordingly set aside the trial court’s Order denying bail to the two accused.

Cause Title: Jose Papachen And Another versus State of Uttar Pradesh Through Principal Secretary, Home, Lucknow, And Another

Neutral Citation 2023:AHC-LKO:58585

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