Court issues notice to government on PIL petition challenging ordinance.
The Allahabad High Court on Friday issued a notice to the Uttar Pradesh government on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition challenging the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020.
Petitioner Saurabh Kumar of Prayagraj prayed for declaring the ordinance ultra vires, saying it was “both morally and constitutionally repugnant”.
A Division Bench of Chief Justice Govind Mathur and Justice Piyush Agarwal heard the petitioner and the additional advocate general representing the government. The court allowed the government time to file a counter affidavit on or before January 4.
A rejoinder affidavit, if any, may be filed by the petitioner on or before January, 6 2021, the court said.
The matter has been listed for January 7, on which date the writ petition will be heard for final disposal.
Plea for interim direction to government
The PIL plea also prayed for an interim direction to the government to not take any coercive action in cases of conversion by marriage or for the purpose thereof.
The provisions gave the State policing powers over a citizen’s choice of life partner or religion militate against the fundamental rights to individual autonomy, privacy, human dignity and personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, the petitioner submitted.
The ordinance led to an unreasonable intrusion into the domain of personal autonomy, the petitioner said, referring to the advance notice of a 60 days required to be given to the district magistrate before an intended conversion, which was to be followed by a police enquiry into the circumstances of conversion.
“That the aforesaid ordinance requires every religious conversion to be scrutinised and certified by the State. The very concept of forcing an individual to explain and justify a decision, which is closely personal to him or her, before an officer of the State is contrary to constitutionalism,” the petitioner argued.
‘Ordinance inverses equation’
The Constitution imposed limitations on State power and burdened the State to explain and justify the decisions taken by it affecting the rights and lives of citizens. The ordinance inversed this equation, the petition stated.
Obligation to seek permission for conversion two months in advance was fundamentally arbitrary and a violation of the ‘right to privacy’, the petitioner submitted.
“The State has no role to play in the personal choice of individuals in consummating a union and embracing the religion of the partner. The State can certainly regulate acts of forced conversion but the starting point of such regulation has to be a complaint made by the individual who opts to convert,” the petitioner said.
In most of these cases, it was the parents who complained that their daughter had been fraudulently enticed into a relationship and was a victim of forced conversion. This made the ordinance an instrument of harassment in situations where interfaith marriages were voluntary, the PIL said.
The petitioner submitted that the provisions of the ordinance had the potential to give the State sanction and administrative support to the societal hostilities that persons intending to have inter-faith marriages faced.
“Numerous petitions filed in High Courts, seeking police protection for inter-faith couples, denote the level of community threat and social ostracism which they have to face,” the petitioner noted.
Cognizable, non-bailable offence
The ordinance makes religious conversion a cognizable and non-bailable offence inviting penalties upto 10 years in prison if found to be effected for marriage or through misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or other allegedly fraudulent means.
Violation of the provisions of the law will invite a jail term of not less than one year, extendable to five years with a fine of ₹15,000. However, if a minor, a woman or person belonging to the Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribes communities was converted through the said unlawful means, the jail term would be a minimum of three years and can be extended to 10 years with a fine of ₹25,000.
The ordinance outlaws any marriage done with the sole purpose of “unlawful conversion or vice-versa” by the man of one religion with the woman of another religion, either by converting himself/herself before or after marriage, or by converting the woman before or after marriage shall be declared void”.
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