Article 14 releases investigative report on misuse of Uttar Pradesh's anti-conversion law

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In a comprehensive investigation conducted by Article 14, an alarming revelation has surfaced regarding the implementation of Uttar Pradesh's anti-conversion law. The study, centred on 101 First Information Reports (FIRs), exposes a multitude of flaws, raising questions about the legal and ethical considerations of the state's approach to alleged forced conversions to Christianity. The report released on October 11, is the first of a three-part series and offers insights into the misuse of the law by third parties, the questionable role of Hindutva outfits, and the broader implications on individual freedoms.

It begins by addressing a significant finding: “More than half of all first information reports (FIRs) alleging forced conversion to Christianity in Uttar Pradesh have no legal standing and should never have been registered by the police.”

Out of the 101 FIRs examined, a staggering 62% were filed based on complaints by third parties, including Hindutva outfits such as Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This contradicts the explicit provisions of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, which clearly specifies that only an aggrieved person or their blood relatives can file an FIR related to forced conversion.

The report quotes Shashwat Anand, a lawyer who has challenged the constitutionality of the anti-conversion law. He emphasizes the significance of adhering to the specified complainant criteria and points out that the law's special provisions, delineating who can approach the police machinery, make FIRs filed by the police that do not meet these criteria legally unsustainable and grounds for legal challenge.

The National Federation of Indian Women had already challenged similar laws in eight states in January 2023, asserting that they are arbitrary, unconstitutional, and allow unwarranted state intrusion into private lives.

The study categorizes the 101 FIRs into four groups based on the complainant—victim, police personnel, Hindutva outfit/RSS, or BJP member, and third person. Sixty-three FIRs were registered after complaints by third parties, including 26 complaints from Hindutva parties. These FIRs reflect three notable trends as per the study:

“Prior Information” Complaints: Thirty-one out of the 63 FIRs based on third-party complaints were filed based on “prior information” about illegal conversions. This often involves Hindutva outfits claiming to witness allurements or public declarations of Christianity during prayer meetings.

Bible and Literature Recovery: Twenty FIRs referred to the recovery of the Bible and literature related to Christianity as grounds for alleged forced conversion raising concerns about the vague nature of the evidence being used to support serious accusations.

Cut-Copy-Paste Complaints: Twenty-five FIRs filed by third parties used identical phraseology, suggesting a pattern of cut-copy-paste complaints. This not only questions the credibility of the complaints but also highlights potential systemic issues in the registration process.

Former Director General of Police, Vikram Singh, expressed disappointment in the police's failure to comply with Section 4 of the anti-conversion law. He emphasized that if false or fake cases are registered and subsequently criticized by the court, it becomes counterproductive. “When the provisions of section 4 have not been complied with, I expected a lot better that they should do their homework. If the complaint is not by the victim and his/her blood relative, then the police should have expunged the case, which, according to your study, has not happened. If such false or fake cases are registered, which end up getting strictures from the court, then that’s counterproductive,” The report quotes him.

The study raises concerns about the burden of proving innocence falling on the accused under Section 12 of the anti-conversion law. This, according to Shashwat Anand, turns the law into a tool for misuse, as it places an undue onus on the accused, potentially leading to bogus FIRs and unwarranted legal battles.

The report highlights the legal challenges against Uttar Pradesh's anti-conversion law, with petitions pending before the Allahabad High Court and the Supreme Court. These challenges argue that the law grants policing powers over an individual's choice of life partner or religion, violating fundamental rights to individual autonomy, privacy, human dignity, and personal liberty which are guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

As of May 2023, the Uttar Pradesh police had registered at least 433 cases under the anti-conversion law since its inception in 2020. Section 5(1) of the Act prescribes punishments, including a minimum prison term of one year and a maximum of up to 10 years along with a fine.

The report delves into specific cases to illustrate the impact of the anti-conversion law on individuals. One such case is that of Pastor Paras in Azamgarh, who faced an FIR filed by Vipin Singh Paliwal, the district president of Hindu Jagran Manch. The accusations led to Paras spending 19 days in jail, despite his account of simply participating in a prayer meeting.

According to the individual filing the complaint, Pastor Paras, was “reading from a book and trying to inspire people for conversion”. While Paras on the other hand maintains that he only recited a verse from the Bible.

The study emphasizes the need for precise circumstances in FIRs related to forced conversion and questions the legitimacy of loosely worded complaints.

The report also exposes patterns in FIRs filed by members of Hindutva outfits, particularly Bajrang Dal. Out of 26 FIRs, 15 began with identical words, stating that the complainant had prior information regarding an alleged act of forced conversion. This trend, unrelated to the provisions of Section 4 of the Act, allows third parties to pose as victims and engage in vigilantism, raising concerns about the integrity of the legal process.

Accusations of disrespect to Hindu gods are another common thread in some FIRs filed by Hindutva outfit members. Vipin Singh, a member of the Hindu Mahasangh and RSS, filed a complaint against Mohreel for “propagation of Christianity and criticizing Hindu religion.” This highlights a broader pattern where any form of criticism or disrespect to Hindu gods is counted as a means of forced conversion.

The study points out the confusion surrounding the definition of conversion in many FIRs. A Lucknow-based lawyer mentioned that not a single FIR mentions the method of conversion. The report cites instances in Sitapur where FIRs registered by Bajrang Dal members allege absurd acts of forced conversion based on vague grounds, such as luring people under the guise of selling products.

The report highlights that between September and December 2022, “three FIRs registered at different police stations in eastern UP’s Kushinagar district were identical.” The complaints, filed by different police personnel, all alleged that they “received information” about the spreading of superstitions “under the guise of grand prayer meetings for Jesus Christ.”

The findings of the part 1 of the Article 14 study present a disturbing picture of the misuse and flaws in the implementation of Uttar Pradesh's anti-conversion law and underscore the need for a critical re-examination of the law's provisions, enforcement mechanisms, and the role of Hindutva outfits.