Supreme Court grants interim protection in religious conversion case in Uttar Pradesh

ECI church, Hariharganj, Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh. (Photo: Courtesy of ECI)

In a recent development, the Supreme Court has provided interim protection from arrest to the Chairman of the Broadwell Christian Hospital Society in Fatehpur district, Uttar Pradesh, amidst allegations of forceful religious conversion.

A bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice JB Pardiwala has also issued a notice to the Uttar Pradesh government regarding an appeal filed by Mathew Samuel and others. This appeal challenges a previous order from the Allahabad High Court, which had declined to quash the proceedings related to the First Information Report (FIR) filed against them by the state police.

The bench on September 1, 2023 stated, "Issue notice on the Special Leave Petition as well as on the Interlocutory Application for directions. In the meanwhile, no coercive action shall be taken against the petitioners in connection with FIR Nos 224/2022, 54/2023, 55/2023, and 60/2023, registered at Police Station Kotwali, District Fatehpur, UP."

Senior advocate CU Singh, representing the petitioners, has requested a stay on the investigation concerning the FIRs, alleging an abuse of the criminal justice process.

Previously, the high court had declined to quash the proceedings against Samuel and others in the FIR filed against them by the state police.

The Uttar Pradesh Police had registered FIRs against Samuel and others under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, as well as the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, following complaints of mass religious conversion.

Background of the religious conversion allegations

The police issued notices to various individuals and institutions linked to the Broadwell Christian Hospital, World Vision International's Fatehpur office, and the bishop of the Evangelical Church of India, Prayagraj in January 2023. These notices were based on suspicions of their involvement in illegal conversions.

A notice was previously issued in December 2022 to the Broadwell Christian Hospital, a missionary hospital with roots dating back to British colonial times (1909), requesting its officials to cooperate in the investigation and share relevant documents.

Similar actions were taken against prominent Christian institutions, including Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences (SHUATS) and the Allahabad Bible Seminary, which is affiliated to the Evangelical Church of India.

Three police stations in Fatehpur had filed at least seven First Information Reports (FIRs) and made numerous arrests since the beginning of 2022. These actions were initiated in response to complaints from Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal, alleging that Christian groups or individuals were attempting to convert Hindus through various means, including allurements, trickery, and coercion.

Between April 15 and November 20, 2022, the police arrested 41 individuals associated with the Hariharganj church in Fatehpur, which was also accused of conducting conversions.

The police questioned the hospital for the distribution of goats, cycles and grocery items and the hospital officials admitted distributing these items to 16 people in different villages of Fatehpur.

The management of Broadwell Christian Hospital defended its actions, stating that the assistance provided to beneficiaries was part of an 'income generation program' under charitable work. Dr. Samuel explained that items such as goats and bicycles were given to impoverished villagers as part of a community income generation plan. He asserted that this was not intended as an allurement for conversions and that the local authorities were aware of these activities.

Dr. Samuel and hospital staff alleged that the police had misconstrued their charitable efforts as attempts to induce conversions. They claimed that the police had arrived at the hospital without a search warrant and seized computer hard discs.

The hospital's medical superintendent, Dr. A. Jesudoss, noted that the assistance provided to villagers had earned them a certificate of appreciation from the Hariapur gram Pradhan (village head). This suggests that their efforts were positively received by the local community, said Jesudoss.