Bhopal: From topics like Citizenship Amendment Act, Triple Talaq, Pakistan, Partition and abrogation of Article 370, to names of Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul Gandhi, Afzal Guru, and Amit Shah – all of these featured in the 70-minute long debate on the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Ordinance 2021 in the Assembly on March 8, before it was passed with a voice vote amid opposition from the Congress.
Interestingly, as the Assembly passed the Bill, slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ were reportedly chanted by a few members of the Treasury bench, even as the Speaker failed to raise any objections. On being questioned over the sloganeering by the media, State Home Minister Narottam Mishra said, “Jaha honge waha Ram bolenge. Koi sadan mein pratibandh laga sakta hai bolne se! (We will raise the name of Ram wherever we are, No one can stop us from hailing His name in the Assembly!)”
The new law replaced the existing Freedom of Religion Ordinance 2020, which was passed by the cabinet in December last year and later cleared by the Governor on January 9, 2021. The Bill was passed in its original form. The 2020 ordinance was enacted to replace the MP Freedom of Religion Act 1968.
Mishra said that the new Bill has provisions for annulling marriages conducted by unfair means. It also make conversion a non-bailable offence, entails punishment upto 10 years, empowers Sessions court to hear cases, and puts the onus of proving innocence on the accused. Further it has a provision to penalise the organisation and NGOs organising and funding unlawful marriages.
He added that the earlier Act did not have provisions for annulling marriages. Under it, conversions were bailable offences and the sentence did not stretch beyond two years.
Since January 9, when the 2020 ordinance came into effect, 23 cases had been registered across the state in a month, Mishra said while tabling the latest Bill in the Assembly. However, contrary to the minister, the list of cases provided by the state police said that only 16 cases have been registered in last two months.
“Any love that leads to ‘Jihad’, offend our sentiments and make our daughters suffer, we will oppose it,” the state home minister told media minutes after the Bill was passed in the Assembly with a voice vote.
Also read: MP Police Reports First Case of ‘Love-Jihad’ Under New Freedom of Religion Law
During the debate, three Congress leaders raised their objections to the Bill. Speaking against the Bill, first time Congress MLA from Jabalpur, Vinay Saxena pointed out that it’s a violation of the Right to Freedom of Religion (Article 25, 27, and 28), guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. He said, “Already there are laws for every crime. Everyone is free to chose their faith at their will as our Constitution guarantees it. But this new law has no other aim but to target minorities and those who enacted it want to win praises from their political masters.”
Citing the Bill as “unnecessary”, Saxena further pointed out that serious issues like unemployment and crimes against women are not on the government’s priority list. The government should focus on such issues instead of religious liberty.
“As per the Home Minister, if 23 cases of religious or forced conversion were registered in a month of its passing, it can amount to only 200 cases a year. But there are nearly 10,000 cases of crime against women; 5,200 kidnapped girls were rescued in a year – why is the government not presenting any bill to curb those cases? We would have surely supported you. But this Bill is full of flaws and should not be passed,” he added.
Other than Saxena, two more Congress MLAs, Dr Govind Rajput and Heena Kawre, also opposed the bill, while two Congress MLAs including former Law Minister PC Sharma did not get a chance to speak despite their names being on the list.
Also read: Love Jihad – Legislation of the Post Truth
While speaking against the bill, former cabinet Minister and senior Congress leader, Dr. Govind Singh accused Home Minister Narottam Mishra of proposing the bill on the lines of BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand government just to win praises in Home Minister Amit Shah’s “court”. He also clarified that he was not against any ideology but against such laws that have been brought in with the sole purpose of targetting minorities.
Questioning the merit of the Bill, Heena Kavre, Congress MLA from Balaghat, said that the government should have either conducted a survey or have data to backup their claims before passing the Bill in the Assembly.
Following the Opposition, a number of BJP MLAs spoke in support of the Bill after which the Speaker asked Home Minister Narottam Mishra to reply the queries raised by the members of the house. However, instead of showing data as demanded by Balaghat MLA Heena Kawre to back his demand to pass the law, he dragged the issue of Partition, the role of Jawaharlal Nehru and Congress in it,and a host of other issues to justify his claims.