The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Himachal Pradesh on Friday unanimously passed a Bill in the Assembly to check ''forcible religious conversions''.
Cutting across party lines, the ruling BJP and the Congress passed the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2019, with the latter initially expressing some resentment over the need to introduce the Bill as there was already an existing legislation that was brought by the Congress government in 2006.
CPI-M''s lone member Rakesh Singha, however, expressed apprehensions over certain provisions of the Bill.
A day earlier, the Bill was introduced in the House by Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur.
As per the Bill, "no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any other person from one religion to another by use of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, inducement or by fraudulent means."
Expressing gratitude to then Congress Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, who is now a legislator, for passing the legislation against forced religious conversion, Thakur said: "We are not able to stop religious conversions after that Act (2006). No case was registered so far despite several cases of religious conversions coming to light. The previous act needed 10 amendments, so we decided to bring the new Bill. The new act will be more stringent."
Earlier, Congress member Jagat Singh Negi said there was no need to introduce this Bill.
"You can bring an amendment bill for the existing act. Your intention to bring the Bill seems to be doubtful," he said.
Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Suresh Bhardwaj said that in the previous act, there was a provision of two to three years of sentence. In this Bill, there is a provision of jail term for up to seven years.
The Bill says that any marriage which was done for the sole purpose of conversion by a person of one religion with a person of another religion either by converting himself before or after marriage or by converting the other person before or after marriage may be declared null and void by the family court.
"It has been observed that there is a rise in conversions by fraudulent means and unless checked well in time, this practice may erode the confidence and mutual trust between the different ethnic and religious groups," the Chief Minister said.
In case forcible conversions are not prohibited, it would create public disorder, he added.
The Chief Minister said the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006, was enacted to provide for prohibition of conversion from one religion to another by use of force or inducement or by fraudulent means. After the enactment, the society has undergone many transitional changes, he said.
The punishments provided for in the Act were not as sufficient as to have a deterrent effect, Thakur said, adding that adequate punishment was required to be provided like the provisions made by other states such as Uttarakhand.