The Himachal Pradesh assembly passed a bill on Friday against conversion by force, inducement or through marriages solemnised for the “sole purpose” of adopting a new religion.
The Opposition supported the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2019, which was passed unanimously with a voice vote.
Replying to the discussion, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur said a new stringent legislation was required as “forced conversion”, especially in Rampur and Kinnaur, was “on the rise”.
The bill seeks to repeal the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006, which is on similar lines. The new bill proposes stiffer punishments — up to seven years in jail compared to the three years under the existing law.
The bill prohibits conversion by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, inducement, marriage or any fraudulent means. Any marriage for the sole purpose of conversion will also be declared null and void under Section 5 of the bill.
While participating in the discussion on the bill, Congress legislators Asha Kumari, Sukhvinder Sukhu, Jagat Singh Negi and lone CPM MLA Rakesh Singha sought changes in some clauses.
Answering Sukhu’s suggestion, Thakur said the 13-year old act was not so effective.
The government decided to bring a new legislation instead of amending the already-existing act as it has only eight sections and it would be no better to add about 10 more sections to it, the chief minister said.
As per the bill, anyone seeking to convert will need to give a month’s notice to the district magistrate, stating that the person is converting on his own. The provision figured in the 2006 law as well and was challenged in court.
The priest who performs conversion ceremony will also give a month’s notice in advance. Those reconverting to their “parent religion” are exempted from this provision.
Replying to Negi’s suggestion, the chief minister said everyone was worried about untouchability, but provisions in the Constitution against untouchability were already there.
According to the new bill, if Dalits, women or minors were made to convert, the jail term will be between two-seven years.
Law Minister Suresh Bhardwaj, Rakesh Pathania and Rakesh Jamwal from the treasury bench also participated in the discussion.
Section 10 of the bill states that no person or organisation violating the provisions will be allowed to accept any donation or contribution of any kind from within or outside the country.
The bill will now become an act after its notification following assent by the governor.