Conversion Law Legitimises Honour Killings


By R. Raj Rao

UTTAR PRADESH has become the first Indian state to transform the conversion ordinance into law. On 24th November, the state cabinet passed the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2020. Hours after the law was passed, the Deorania Police Station in Bareilly District registered a case against a 24-year-old Muslim man named Ahmad for eloping with a Hindu girl, and marrying her with a view to converting her to Islam. An FIR was lodged at the police station by the girl’s father, even as Ahmad has gone underground. However, the girl has denied that she was converted, or converted against her wishes. Whatever happened between the couple was consensual, the girl has stated. This has prompted BSP chief Mayawati to comment that the Love Jihad law is riddled with doubt.

The Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act punishes offenders with a jail term ranging from one to five years, and a fine of Rs. 15,000. If the girl is a minor, the jail sentence can extend to ten years. The law has special ramifications for a Muslim-majority union territory like Jammu & Kashmir, where many students migrate to universities in other states, fall in love with non-Muslim girls, and decide to marry them.

I see a conspiracy between the new law and this dirty business of honour killings, for which states like UP, Haryana, Kerala and many others are notorious.

An honour killing is the murder of a married couple by their parents for marrying against the wishes of the parents. The parents are usually against the alliance because the boy and girl belong to different castes or religions. Sometimes, the class factor too can play a decisive role, if say the girl is more educated than the boy. In recent times, the blockbuster Hindi film Dhadak, starring newcomer Ishaan Khattar and the late Sridevi’s daughter Janhvi Kapoor, dealt with the theme of honour killings. Several episodes in the popular television show Crime Patrol are also centred on real-life cases of honour killings. Though same-sex marriage isn’t legal in India, the decriminalization of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in September 2018 notwithstanding, many gay, lesbian and transgender couples who have chosen to live together have also been the unfortunate victims of honour killings.

Vulnerable young people who fear that their families will track them down and kill them for their rebellious unions can have recourse to the law. They can approach local police stations to ask for protection, and can also file criminal cases against their families in the courts. Several people who love each other and wish to spend the rest of their lives together have thus been saved from the wrath of their tyrannical families by the timely intervention of the cops and the courts.

The new UP law, however, snatches away this last refuge that youngsters have at their disposal. Couples who perceive a threat from their families can now no longer seek police or legal protection, for the cops and the courts cannot protect them from something that is illegal in the first place. They will thus be turned away.

Although the law specifically applies to Muslim men and Hindu women, it is liable to have a snowballing effect, so that now onwards all run-away marriages and live-in relationships will be viewed with suspicion by the authorities. The law then, rather than coming to the aid of victims by punishing their oppressors, conspires with the oppressor to eliminate the victim. This is truly ironic.

The Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act comes in the wake of a recent Supreme Court judgment that said that “The right to marry a person of one’s choice is integral to Article 21 (Right to Life and Liberty) of the Constitution.” And the judgment actually concerned a case where a Hindu woman in Kerala converted to Islam after marriage. The judgment by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court expressly stated that “Neither the state nor the law can dictate a choice of partners or limit the free ability of every person to decide on these matters.”

If a state can pass laws that contravene Supreme Court rulings, it does not augur well for the wisdom of the judiciary. It means that governments can override any Supreme Court judgment that is unpalatable to them.

The central government has so far been silent about the UP law, passed by its own party, the BJP.  However, not distancing itself from the law somehow makes it complicit, leading to fears that tomorrow this may become a national law.

That said, for now two states that are very likely to pass the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, following UP’s example, are Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Once this happens, bigoted parents in these three states will have a free hand to stalk their recalcitrant kids who have married against their wishes and butcher them, all in the name of preserving the so-called family honour.

  • Dr. R. Raj Rao is an internationally known Indian English novelist, poet and critic. He was Professor and Head of the Department of English at the University of Pune in Maharashtra. He has also been a Visiting Professor at universities in Canada and Germany

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