The Himachal Pradesh government introduced a Bill on Friday to strengthen the punishments and add a specific reference to mass conversion to an existing legislation that prohibits changing one’s religion by force or coercion.
The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019, which went into effect just over a year and a half ago, has been strengthened by the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The 2019 Act was notified only on December 21, 2020 – 15 months after it was passed in the state assembly. The 2019 version itself had replaced a 2006 law, which prescribed lesser punishments.
The amendment Bill presently proposed by Jai Ram Thakur’s BJP government intends to increase the penalty for forced conversions from up to seven years in prison to a maximum of ten years.
It states that complaints filed under the Act would be investigated by a police officer with a rank no lower than that of a sub-inspector. A sessions court will now hear the charges.
“In order to make the Act more effective some minor changes are being made in the punishment clauses,” the chief minister said while introducing the Bill.
The Act prohibits conversion by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, inducement, marriage or any fraudulent means. Any marriage for the sole purpose of conversion is declared “null and void” under Section 5 of the Act.
The Himachal Pradesh law requires that anyone seeking to convert will give a month’s notice to the district magistrate that they are changing their religion on their own.
(with inputs from agencies)