They met in Bhopal in April 2019. She was a 23-year-old engineering student from Balaghat. He was a 30-year-old mechanic. They were together for close to a year and explored the city together.
Then something went horribly wrong. By January 2021, after a complaint by the woman, the man was the second person in Madhya Pradesh to be booked under the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021.
The two narratives diverge in March 2020, when the two visited the Dargah of Raisen together. The man stopped to offer namaz, and told her he was a Muslim, the first time he had revealed this, according to the police compliant. He told her he wanted her to convert to Islam so they could be married.
Shocked, she allegedly went back home to Balaghat, and returned to Bhopal only in October. He met her again and asked her thrice to marry him after converting, the complaint says. He even slapped her, she alleged in the complaint, and on January 19, uploaded a social media post that reportedly said “Ek aur ladki aur wo bhi Hindu”.
The man was booked under the religious conversion law, rape, and the IT act, after members of the Bajrang Dal and the Sanskriti Bachao Manch held a protest outside the Ashoka Garden police station on January 20, 2021.
Except, this is not the man’s version of events at all. Speaking to HT from Bhopal, the Muslim man said the woman knew about his religion all along, and even attended his family functions. What went wrong was a relationship gone sour. “During the lockdown, she befriended someone else and implicated me in a false case,” he said.
The man spent 65 days in jail, and got bail on March 23, 2021. His was the second case in Madhya Pradesh booked under the anti-convesion law that came into force exactly one year ago on January 9, 2021. A year that has seen cases where police navigated personal relationships, a year that has seen emboldened right-wing groups, and a year where cases are registered almost exclusively against accused who were either Muslim or Christian.
The law and the data
The controversial law was enacted to “provide freedom of religion by prohibiting conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, allurement, use of threat or force, undue influence, coercion, marriage or any fraudulent means.”
The person converting and the person conducting the ceremony have to inform the concerned district magistrate 60 days in advance. The law stipulates a jail term between one and five years for religious conversion in violation of section 3, which prohibits conversion, or an attempt to conversion by misrepresentation, allurement, threat or force. If the conversion involves women, minors or people from the scheduled castes and tribes, the punishment is from two to 10 years in prison. Mass religious conversion brings a jail term of between five and 10 years.
Controversially, while crimes registered under the law are cognisable and non-bailable, the burden of proof lies on the accused.
In the past year, as many as 65 cases have been registered under the law, popularly known as the love jihad law. “Nine cases have been registered as dharma parivartan under sections 3 and 5 of the MP Freedom of Religion Act for threatening and luring people to convert. 56 cases have been registered as love jihad against people after elopement, rape, marriage and using fake identity with an intention of conversion,” said Rajesh Rajora, additional chief secretary at the state’s home department.
A total of 107 people have been booked, of whom 78 were Muslims and 29 were Christians, according to official data.
In 30 cases, the accused have been booked under additional sections of 376 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). In 20 cases, the victims are either SC or ST, and in 12 cases there were minors involved, and the accused have also faced the charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offence (POCSO), data compiled by Crime Against Women Cell showed.
There are 36 cases that are under trial, while charges are yet to be pressed in 29 cases. No case has reached verdict thus far.
No permission to convert has been granted under the new law so far. “We have not received many applications either,” Rajora said.
In Bhopal, for instance, just six persons have filed applications. “We have received applications but no permission has been granted,” additional district magistrate Dileep Yadav said. “We have sent the applications to police to check motive and verify facts, but we are yet to receive clearance.”
What police do
Police often face difficulties in navigating competing narratives, particularly if there are no eyewitnesses, as is often the case. The use of technology, therefore, becomes crucial.
“In most cases of a love affair, the woman hides this from her family so there is a dearth of eyewitnesses,” said Alok Shrivastava, police station in-charge of Ashoka Garden police station. Investigating the case cited earlier, Shrivastava said the cornerstone of the case was the social media post, which is why sections of the IT act were invoked.
There are also cases where charges are pressed on the statement of the complainant as primary evidence.
“In January this year, a tribal woman eloped with a Muslim man in Harda district. The couple went to Maharashtra but they didn’t marry as the woman was not ready to adopt Islam. The man allegedly assaulted her physically and sexually. The woman returned to her village on February 24 and filed a complaint,” said Manoj Uikey, the investigating officer. “In the charge-sheet, we included the versions of many people where the couple lived for a month, but the woman’s statement was the only thing to prove that the man was forcing her to adopt Islam.”
How relationships gone sour are given communal tinge
Of the 56 cases under the law that include rape, sexual harassment and elopement, in four cases married women levelled charges of conversion against their husbands and in-laws, data show. But in 52, the accused were acquaintances or people they knew previously. Most representatives of those accused argue these were not cases with communal undertones, but were given this hue under pressure from right-wing groups.
Waheed Khan, the lawyer of the 30-year-old man, said it was impossible that the girl was unaware that he was a Muslim. “After their breakup, Asad like other lovers tried to convince the woman to resolve issues, which were not communal at all, but it was given this tinge after saffron organisations got involved,” Khan said. “The social media post was misinterpreted too. The woman registered a case under duress, and has since skipped three hearings in court.”
In another case, a 19-year-old tribal woman from Raisen filed a complaint in May at Kachnar police station of Ashok Nagar district. She had befriended an 22-year-old man from Rajpur. The man began threatening her and wanted her to convert to get married over phone, she said in her complaint. He was arrested under the anti-conversion law, SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act and section 354 (outraging modesty) of the IPC.
Months later, while the case was being heard, the woman told HT, “I misunderstood his intentions but I do not want any action. Both families want to withdraw from the case, and nobody should go to prison for a reason like this.”
“The woman filed a complaint under pressure from the family. The victim turned hostile in court,” said defence lawyer KC Sharma. “She has now requested that the matter be withdrawn, but since the sections are non-compoundable, the court has to take a view.”
How right-wing groups are using the law
With the accused in these cases either Muslim or Christian, multiple cases have seen pressure from right-wing groups that result in the registration of a police complaint.
The new law had made their “work” easier, said Tannu Sharma, sector secretary, Bajrang Dal Indore. “These cases have been occurring for years, but earlier we had to fight the police for registration of cases,” Sharma said. “Weak sections were used, but now there is no option but to file these cases under these stringent sections.”
Asked why he felt the need to intervene in these cases, Sharma said, “Hindu women and their families feel afraid of the accused, so we reach police stations in large numbers to support the victim. In Dwarkapuri, for instance, a Muslim man married a woman after hiding his identity. Six months later, the woman found out and returned home. The man began threatening her, but she refused to change her religion. We provided them support, and convinced them to register a case.”
Muslim and Christian organisations, however, said the new law was being used to target their communities.
There have been instances of Hindu men eloping with Muslim women, but no action had been taken, claimed Azeem Bilal, member of the Popular Front of India. “A Muslim woman eloped with a Hindu man in September this year. The family staged protests and demanded action under the MP Freedom of Religion Act as the woman was misguided by the man, but police didn’t act,” Bilal said. “Their marriage was solemnized in an Arya Samaj temple. The conversion took place without prior notice to the collector, but no action was taken.”
The law had only worsened an already tenuous communal atmosphere, and had contributed to growing attacks in the state, said AC Michael, national coordinator of the United Christian Forum. “ We have seen 38 violent incidents against Christians in 2021 in the state, which is the highest in many years. 29 innocent people have been booked under the new law for holding prayers and organizing functions,” Michael said. “A few people are misusing the law to establish themselves as right-wing leaders, and spreading doubt about our charity work.”
The debate around the law
“The law has been designed in a way that it doesn’t need much evidence to register a case. The complainant and also their family can file a complaint and the onus of proof lies on the accused,” said advocate Shanno Shagufta Khan, who has filed a public interest litigation against the provisions of anti-conversion law in February 2021 in the Jabalpur High Court. “I am sure that this will not stand judicial scrutiny.”
“The law is full of flaws and is meant to push an agenda to target particular communities,” said human rights activist LS Hardenia, who has also challenged the law in the Jabalpur High Court in February 2021.
The state government, however, holds that the law was helping in combating cases of forced conversion. Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan on January 3 asked police and the home department to not only keep an eye on such developments, but also on NGOs allegedly “funding” these practices.
The law was being used judiciously, Rajora of the home department said. “That is why the numbers are low. The superintendents of police have been instructed to register a case under this law only after verifying all the facts,” he said.
The law doesn’t stop interreligious marriages, the state’s home minister Narottam Mishra said. “But yes, it has stopped a conspiracy hatched to target Hindu women,” Mishra said. “As we have said, love jihad is real and women finally have a law against it.”
The opposition has blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party for causing rifts in society. “These laws push the BJP’s agenda. The IPC has provisions for punishing these crimes, so what was the need for a separate law?” said Kunal Chaudhary, Congress MLA. “It has come into effect so saffron organisations can create fear.”