Ensuring alimony or maintenance for women forced into marriage for the purpose of religious conversion and a provision to declare such marriages null and void are some of the clauses that will be part of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom to Religion Bill, 2020, which is all set to be discussed in a special Cabinet session on Saturday, ahead of being put up in the upcoming three-day winter session that will start on December 28.
Once passed by the Assembly, the new law will replace the existing MP Dharma Swatantrya Adhiniyam, 1968, law. The BJP government argues that the 1968 law is outdated and is being reworked in light of the experience of the past 50 years in the state regarding forced conversions, with improved definitions and higher penalties to prohibit such crimes, particularly forced religious conversions on the pretext of marriage.
Under the new Bill, forced conversions would draw a minimum jail term of five years, going up to life imprisonment, in case the person converted is a minor or from a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, and three years otherwise, with a minimum penalty of Rs 50,000.
However, unlike the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, under the MP law, a person converting of his own free will does not have to report it to the district magistrate. In case a person approaches a priest for such a conversion though, the priest concerned has to inform the district administration.
Medical Education Minister Vishwas Sarang had demanded that frequent offenders in such cases be given higher penalty, but officials said this could be the purview of courts.
Under the new MP Bill, a family court in the state will be empowered to declare marriages conducted for the purpose of religious conversion null and void. The alimony in such cases would be granted as per Section 125 of the CrPC. In his interactions with mediapersons, Home Minister Narottam Mishra had said they were also exploring the possibility of attaching the property of the accused.
The draft was scheduled to come up for discussion at a Cabinet meeting on December 22 but was deferred till a special session on December 26 after Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said a few suggestions were awaited.
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