Updated: August 20, 2021 11:44 AM GMT
A bride with her hands decorated with traditional henna dye at a mass marriage event in Mumbai, India, on Feb. 14. (Photo: AFP)
A court in the western Indian state of Gujarat has granted protection to interfaith couples from unnecessary harassment under the state’s recently amended anti-conversion law.
The Gujarat High Court in an interim order on Aug. 19 stayed certain amendments or changes made to the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021, stating they “will not apply to interfaith marriages which take place without force, allurement or fraudulent means.”
Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, an organization of Islamic scholars belonging to the Deobandi school of thought in India, had challenged the constitutional validity of the amendments passed in April 2021.
The changes, which penalized forcible or fraudulent religious conversion through marriage, were notified by the state government on June 15. The law itself criminalizes interfaith marriages and seeks to restrain the conversion of Hindu girls to Islam or Christianity after marriages.
The high court, listing seven rigorous sections of the amended law, said that they shall not operate pending further hearing because not all interfaith marriages are solemnized “for the purpose of unlawful conversion.”
Gujarat is ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that wants to curtail the alleged cases of “love jihad” involving Muslim men luring Hindu girls to marry them and convert them to Islam.
A state cannot dictate whom to marry or which religion to profess
The amended law has a provision of imprisonment for up to 10 years and a fine of 500,000 rupees (US$6,800) for those convicted of forcing or cheating someone into an interfaith marriage.
The state government’s attorney tried arguing that the government was not against interfaith marriages but does not want anyone to use it as a tool for religious conversion.
The petitioner, however, argued that “the amended law had gone against basic principles of marriage and the right to propagate, profess and practice religion as enshrined in Article 25 of the constitution.”
The high court’s interim order, according to activists and lawyers, will serve as an “eye-opener” for other states in India where similar laws have been passed or are being thought about.
Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, a human rights activist based in Gujarat, told UCA News that the court had done the right thing but it was not enough. “We want that the entire anti-conversion law should be struck down as anti-constitutional,” he said.
An adult should be free to marry a person of choice irrespective of the religion one belongs to. Similarly, anybody should be able to change religion at will. There should be no restriction, he said.
“A state cannot dictate whom to marry or which religion to profess,” the Jesuit priest underlined.
BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh in northern India was the first to come up with an ordinance against “love jihad” followed by other states. Even Karnataka in southern India has announced the enactment of a similar law to curtail conversions through marriage.
Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a human rights movement, has challenged the controversial anti-conversion laws in the name of love jihad in the Supreme Court of India.
“We are hopeful of a positive outcome,” said Father Prakash, who is one of the CJP trustees.