The Supreme Court was hearing a batch of petitions challenging anti-conversion laws passed by various BJP-ruled states, along with appeals filed by two states against high court orders partially staying their respective anti-conversion laws.
A bench headed by the Chief Justice of India (‘CJI’) on Monday wondered how politician and lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (‘BJP’), could keep filing public interest litigation (‘PIL’) on issues on which he had previously filed petitions, but had chosen to withdraw them, when the court had not granted him liberty to file a petition afresh.
“It seems that PIL petitioners don’t think they’re bound by rules of pleadings. You cannot keep on withdrawing and filing new petitions,” CJI D.Y. Chandrachud remarked.
The bench, which also comprised Justices P.S. Narasimha and J.B. Pardiwala, was hearing a batch of petitions challenging the anti-conversion laws passed by various BJP-ruled states. Upadhyay’s petition, seeking directions to the Union Government and state governments to take steps to prevent forced religious conversion by intimidation, threats or the lure of gifts and monetary benefits, was also heard by the bench.
The CJI’s observations are in contrast to the observations made in November last year by a bench headed by Justice M.R. Shah that had been hearing Upadhyay’s petition until now. A Justice Shah-led bench verbally overruled the objections raised by interveners that Upadhyay’s petition was not maintainable as a similar petition had been withdrawn by him or had been dismissed by the court. Instead, the bench observed that the issue of forced religious conversion was a serious matter which affected national security as well as the freedom of conscience of an individual.
Senior advocate P. Wilson, for Tamil Nadu, was critical of Upadhay’s petition. Upadhyay has been filing the same petition “here, there and everywhere,” he submitted. Senior advocate Dushyant Dave submitted that Upadhyay had made extremely defamatory and scurrilous averments in his petition and that he was appalled by “such kinds of petitions” in the Supreme Court. Upadhyay was represented by senior advocates Arvind Datar and Gaurav Bhatia. The CJI asked senior advocate Datar to see if the averments could be removed from the pleadings.
On April 9, 2021, a bench led by Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman had refused to entertain a similar petition filed by Upadhyay. The bench also included Justices B.R. Gavai and Hrishikesh Roy. Sensing the mood of the bench, Upadhyay had chosen to withdraw his petition at that time.
On the issue of challenge to anti-conversion laws, the bench yesterday recorded the submission of senior advocate Kapil Sibal that he would be seeking the transfer of petitions pending at several high courts, namely the Allahabad High Court, the Uttarakhand High Court, the Madhya Pradesh High Court, the Gujarat High Court and the Karnataka High Court, challenging the respective anti-conversion laws in these states, to the Supreme Court. Advocate Vrinda Grover handed over a chart to the bench giving details of the cases pending at different high courts.
Senior Advocate Indira Jaising submitted that she had already filed a transfer petition seeking the transfer of the petition pending at the Madhya Pradesh High Court to the Supreme Court.
Besides the writ petitions challenging the statutes enacted by the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, there are two appeals pending before the Supreme Court filed by the state governments of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat respectively, challenging the interim orderspassed by the respective high courts partially interdicting anti-conversion laws.
The Solicitor General for the Madhya Pradesh government urged the court to segregate the government’s appeal, but the bench did not accede to the request.
The matter will now be heard after two weeks. A battery of senior advocates comprising Sibal, Jaising, C.U. Singh and Sanjay Hedge, and advocate Grover appeared in the batch of petitions for different parties.