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mp high court on state’s freedom of religion act, 2021

Introduction

A two-judge bench of the High Court of Madhya Pradesh comprising Justice Prakash Chandra Gupta and Justice Sujoy Paul declared it ex-facie unconstitutional to force the citizens to notify the administration of their intention to change their faith. The high court also permitted two willing adult citizens to marry, irrespective of their faith in the same order.[1]

Madhya Pradesh HC has limited the State Government from taking coercive action against any individual who negates Section 10 of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021[2] which needs an individual wanting to convert his religion to deliver a statement in this respect to the District Magistrate. The Court further directed the state to not book adult citizens if they solemnise the marriage of their own will.[3]

Submission of the Petitioner

The 32-page judgement was delivered on various writ petitions that challenged the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act (MPFRA), 2021[4]. It was pleaded that the legislation gives arbitrary and unbridled control to the government to prosecute citizens and it further seeks to infringe upon the citizens’ fundamental rights to practise their faith and marry whomever they choose, regardless of that person’s caste or religion. Pushing that each citizen incorporates an important right of not revealing his conversion, the applicants emphatically pleaded before the Court that, “a citizen is under no obligation either to disclose his religion or his intention to switch over to another religion.”[5]

Response of the State

The State contended that the applicants are requesting an absolute temporary relief, which cannot be granted, and if temporary relief is granted, it will result in final relief for the applicants. The argument that the Court’s trial should focus on upholding the enactment’s constitutionality was extensively discussed.

The Proceeding of the Matter

Beginning with the Supreme Court’s rulings, the court pushed the idea that marriage, sexual orientation, and choice concerning these issues fall under the purview of the right to privacy and have a coherent relationship with the person’s dignity.[6] The Court also took into account the judgement of the Himachal Pradesh High Court in Evangelical Fellowship of India and Anr. Vs. State of Himachal Pradesh case[7] in this matter.

Right to Choose a Life-Partner held to be a Fundamental Right

While delivering the judgement, the HC relied on various decisions of the Supreme Court particularly the Kesavanand Bharati V State of Kerala[8], K S Puttaswamy V Union of India[9], Shafin Jahan V K M Ashokan[10].  These judgements determined that fundamental rights under Article 21[11] include the freedom to select one’s life partner and that when two consenting adults intend to marry any family member, society or the state government has no say in how they make their decision. The HC bench said that the fundamental right under Article 25[12] also provides the citizens with the right to declare or not declare their choice of religion to the world, including the authorities of the state and concurred with the petitioners that the revelation of one’s faith or desire to switch their religion may cause conflict in the community and put one’s life or limb in jeopardy[13].

Section 10 of the MPFRA, 2021 held to be Unconstitutional

The two-judge bench ruled that Section 10 of MPFRA, 2021[14] was apparently “unconstitutional” brought down the entire structure which curbed religious liberty. It categorically declared that it is “illegal to force the citizens to declare their wish to change the religion to the authorities.” The bench said, “The right to change the belief cannot be taken away under the garb of maintaining ‘public order’”.[15]

Conclusion

The judgement is crucial because MPFRA, 2021 was causing obstruction in the way of marriage by inter-faith couples and those persons who intend to give up their current religion and convert to another religion. The violation of the provisions of the attracted imprisonment varying from 1 to 7 years, along with a hefty fine.[16] Though the marriage itself was not illegal, the Act declared it an offence because it perceived that the marriage between interfaith couples was done for conversion. The Act provided that anyone can file a complaint with the police that the marriage has been solemnized for conversion, resulting in harassment of the couple. The question before the court was that when the marriage itself is not illegal, how would it become an offence if one of the partners converts to the religion of the other?

The HC’s judgement is crucial since the state governments of Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have criminalised inter-faith marriages by way of their respective Freedom of Religion Acts passed in recent years. In August of 2021, the Gujarat HC stayed the operation of Section 5 of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021[17], which made it mandatory to seek the District Magistrate’s prior approval for marriage between two adults of different faiths and also laid down punishment for marriage by “unlawful conversion.” Under the garb of this provision, numerous vigilante groups falsely propagated that such marriages were taking place for religious conversions and filed police complaints to harass such couples. As for conversion by “force”, “fraud”, or “inducement”, the HC said that it must be dealt with in accordance with the relevant laws already in place. Regarding the 30 days notice to the DM before conversion, the HC said that no one would change their faith overnight, except in case of forced conversions. The court observed that there is no way to measure or fix the date on which one has ceased to belong to one faith and converted to another, especially in those faiths where a ceremony for conversion is missing. Hence, no notice is required to be given for conversion of faith since it is a long, drawn-out process.

Author(s) Name: Abdul Bari (Aligarh Muslim University)

References:

[1] Rev. Suresh Carleton & Ors v State of MP & Ors (2022) SCC Online MP 5124

[2] Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act 2021, s 10

[3] Rev. Suresh Carleton & Ors (n 1)

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6]‘Mandate to declare religious conversion before authority prima facie unconstitutional: Madhya Pradesh High Court’ (Bar and Bench,  18 November 2022) <https://www.barandbench.com/news/litigation/mp-freedom-of-religion-act-mandate-to-declare-religious-conversion-before-authority-prima-facie-unconstitutional-madhya-pradesh-high-court> accessed 24 March 2023

[7] Evangelical Fellowship of India and Anr. v State of Himachal Pradesh (2012) SCC Online HP 5554

[8] Kesavanand Bharati v State of Kerala (1973) AIR SC 1461

[9] K S Puttaswamy v Union of India (2018) LNIND SC 535

[10] Shafin Jahan v K M Ashokan (2018) (16) SCC 368

[11] Constitution of India 1950, art 21

[12] Constitution of India 1950, art 25

[13] Rev. Suresh Carleton & Ors (n 1)

[14] Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act 2021, s 10

[15] Rev. Suresh Carleton & Ors (n 1)

[16] ‘Madhya Pradesh Assembly passes anti-conversion bill’ (The Hindu, 08 March 2021) <https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/madhya-pradesh-assembly-passes-anti-conversion-bill/article34018703.ece> accessed 25 March 2023

[17] Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act 2021, s 5