The Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amended) Act, 2021, was implemented in the state on June 15 this year after the bill was passed in the budget session and approved by Governor Acharya Devvrat. Days later, Gujarat police on June 19 registered the first case under the amended Act and arrested six people including five from a family in Tarsali area inVadodara.
The arrests were made after a complaint had been filed by a 24-year-old woman the same day stating that the accused faked his religious identity by pretending to be Christian and lured her into a relationship by “promising her modern life after marriage”. The complaint further stated that she met him through social media and she was allegedly raped on four occasions by the accused at a hotel and at the residence of a co-accused. The 26-year-old accused also shared intimate photos of the woman to blackmail her to marry him in a nikah ceremony and then convert to Islam, said the complainant in her statement to Vadodara police.
The Vadodara police have arrested the man along with his parents, sister, and uncle as well as another man who facilitated the alleged sexual assaults against the complainant.
“The man, who is a mutton shop owner, forced the woman to go to a religious place and marry him through a nikah ceremony. She was also forced to convert to Islam and change her name,” Jayrajsinh Vala, the Deputy Commissioner of Police, Zone 2, Vadodara, told the media after the arrests
Noticeably, the amendment to the existing law came after Nitin Patel, the Deputy Chief Minister of Gujarat, announced in February this year that the government would bring a legislation against ‘love jihad’ in the Budget session of the Assembly.
Patel, while campaigning for the local body elections in the same month, had said that the law was “essential for the safety of Hindu girls and women”.
In a controversial speech, he had said, “The people of other religions mislead our daughters using fancy cars and bikes. These are the people who have no food to eat at home and somebody else pays for their petrol. They even appear (look) like Hindus these days to impress and take our daughters and change their religion. We may build schools, colleges medical colleges and hostels to educate our girls and give fee waivers, but if our girls cannot be safe, then there is no use of any college or hostel. Security is primary for our party. Security was ensured when the BJP came to power and we strengthen it with each passing day. To put a curb on such people, our government is seriously planning to bring a law on love jihad in the coming Assembly session.”
ISSUES RAISED WITH LAW
“We have not been able to reach the family in this case. However, a rape charge against a Muslim man is not uncommon in a case filed under this act,” said Mujaheed Nafees, convenor of Minority Minority’s Coordinate Committee, a Gujarat based minority rights organization. “Usually, a complaint of missing person is filed first. Following which, the local police get involved and the family and friends of the man are arrested or detained for investigation. In most cases, the charges don’t stand in court but the family goes through a long and expensive legal battle that many cannot afford,” he said.
Nafees criticised the amended law saying, “This act has been primarily used to harass Muslim men in garb of protecting women. In fact, it takes away the fundamental right of a woman to choose her partner.” Under this act, anyone irrespective of being related to the woman, can file a complaint raising doubt that the woman has been forcefully converted;the onus of proving otherwise falls entirely on the man. “In multiple cases I have helped, I have noticed that self-proclaimed fringe right–wing organisations reach the Marriage Registrar’ office and check names of couples registered under Special Marriage Act. They often are the complainants or worse they reach his residence to harass the man and his family. Besides, the role of the police is not supportive of the couple in such cases,” Nafees told Newsclick.
According to Danish Qureshi, an Ahmedabad based minority rights activist, there are loopholes in the FIR against the accused in the current case. “For instance, nikah ceremony is not allowed unless both the people are Muslims. So, it is unlikely that a Muslim man could have not revealed his religious identity till the nikah ceremony, as claimed in the FIR. Moreover, it is mandatory to inform the Collector of a district before converting to another religion with mention of reason for conversion among other information. It is only after the permission from the district authority, one can reach a religious leader for conversion,” he told the Newsclick.
Noticeably, Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act came into force in 2008 making it mandatory for a person to obtain prior approval from the district authority for consensual conversion.
Advocate Samshad Pathan said the act came into force primarily as a counter measure to stop conversions in tribal belts of Gujarat. “It was the time when BJP and its sister organisations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) used terms like ‘ghar wapsi’to stop tribals converting to Christianity. The law was enforced in retrospect and was called Gujarat Freedom of Religion 2003, so that any conversion dating back to the year 2003 stands to be null and void as the Collector’s permission was not taken prior to the conversion,” Pathan told the Newsclick.
“However, post 2014, the right-wing organisations began using the word ‘love jihad’and the law began to be used for targeting Muslims. The current amendment is an extension of the same agenda. The acts classified as crime under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act are already criminal acts under various sections of Indian Penal Code. For example, if a man lies to a woman and hides his identity, it will be punishable under IPC Section 406 or 420 punishable with seven to 10 years of jail, which is a higher quantum of punishment than what the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act guarantees. If a man rapes or molests a woman, it is punishable under IPC Section 376. There is no need of a new law unless the agenda is to target a particular community,” added Pathan.
Under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act 2003, one could have been imprisoned up to three years with a fine up to Rs 50,000 if found guilty of forced conversion. In the recent amendment to the Bill the ‘offence’ was made non bailable. It redefines the word ‘allurement’ by adding ‘better lifestyle, divine blessings or otherwise’ deeming it necessary to curb conversion by forceful marriage. The amended Act also states that anyone who helps in conversion in the name of love and marriage, will also be considered equally guilty. Any such marriage considered as forced conversion will stand to be null and void in the concerned family court, states the amended Act.
Noticeably, multiple organisations and activists have protested against the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act over time.
A day after the Gujarat government passed the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2021 in the Assembly prohibiting “forcible conversion by marriage”, the Minority’s Coordinate Committee (MCC) wrote to the Governor demanding cancellation of the Bill.
Calling it unconstitutional and a tool that can be misused against minorities, Mujaheed Nafees, convenor of MCC wrote, “The fundamental spirit of this law is the violation of religious freedom of the people. The political conspiracy by male political leaders to impose their ideas on women and their right to choose is visible.”
In 2015, a petition was filed in the High Court by the Archbishop of Gandhinagar and others challenging the clause of Act that made it mandatory for the person to mention the reason for the conversion.
In 2009, a petition challenging the constitutional validity of the Act was filed in the High Court by Gujarat United Christian Forum for Human Rights, retired IAS officer P K Velera, Hanif Lakdawala from NGO Sanchetna and human rights activists Valjibhai Patel and Dwarikanath.