India’s most populous state passed a law on Tuesday establishing a prison term of up to 10 years for anyone found guilty of using marriage to force someone to change religions.
The new law was approved by the cabinet of Uttar Pradesh state, which is controlled by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The law punishes with fines and jail time “those found guilty of conversion done through ‘misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means,’” the Indian Express reported on Wednesday.
If such conversion is of a minor, or of a woman from a particular caste, “then those found guilty would have to face a jail term from three to 10 years.”
The new law — termed the “Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion” — includes a provision allowing for a marriage to be declared null and void if the “sole intention” of the union is to “change a girl’s religion.”
Under the law, anyone wanting to convert to another religion through marriage would have to present this desire in writing to the district magistrate at least two months in advance of the ceremony. It would be the responsibility of the person seeking a religious conversion to prove to the magistrate that it “is not taking place forcefully or with any fraudulent means.” If the magistrate finds no objections to the conversion, then the union will be allowed.
“Love jihad” is the alleged Indian phenomenon of Muslim men attempting to convert Hindu women to Islam through the lure of marriage. Cases of alleged “love jihad” have been reported from different parts of Uttar Pradesh over the past few months, especially in the eastern and central parts of the state.
In one case, a group of parents from the Uttar Pradesh city of Kanpur approached police officials with a complaint that their daughters had allegedly been trapped by Muslim men in forced marriages. They said their daughters were “now seeking their help to free themselves,” the Indian Express explained, noting that this case contributed to the Uttar Pradesh cabinet passing the new law on Tuesday.
The Deputy Superintendent of Police in Kanpur, Vikas Pandey, formed a Special Investigating Team (SIT) in September to probe the allegations. The SIT investigated 14 cases lodged in police stations across Kanpur in recent months “involving Hindu girls and Muslim men.”
Vikas submitted the SIT’s report to the Inspector General of Kanpur, Mohit Agarwal, on November 23. According to Agarwal, the SIT found that police charged the accused in 11 of the 14 cases for “kidnapping, abducting or inducing [a] woman to compel her [into] marriage, etc.” and other charges.
“In eight cases, it was established that the victims (the girls) were minors,” Agarwal told the Indian Express on Tuesday.
“In three of these 11 cases, the victims claimed they were forced into religion conversion [sic]. In three other cases, the girls said they were forced into marriage,” Agarwal revealed.
Uttar Pradesh government minister Siddharth Nath Singh said on Tuesday that the state’s new prison terms of up to ten years for unlawful conversion would deter the act and provide justice to women allegedly forced into marriage for the sole purpose of religious conversion.
Hindus make up 80 percent of India’s population of over 1.3 billion people, while Muslims account for about 14 percent of the population.