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Article India: Madhya Pradesh High Court Issues Interim Order against Anti-conversion Law Requiring Declaration for Religious Conversion

On November 14, 2022, the High Court in India’s Madhya Pradesh state issued an interim order in the case of Rev. Suresh Carleton & Ors. vs. the State of M.P. & Ors. and Connected Pleas where the court stated that adult citizens must not be prosecuted for violating a provision of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021. This act is the state’s controversial anti-conversion law, which requires a declaration to a district magistrate before a person converts to a different religion.

The bench is hearing a number of writ petitions challenging the constitutionality of the 2021 act, which includes a petition that seeks to strike down a number of sections in the law. The court is considering the petitions for “interim relief” because the petitioners have argued that the “impugned act is clearly unconstitutional and therefore during the pendency of these matters” the state, as the respondent, should be “restrained from prosecuting anyone” under the act. (Interim Order para. 11.)

Declaration Requirement under the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021

In India, several states, including Madhya Pradesh, have recently passed Freedom of Religion Acts, or “anti-conversion” laws, which include controversial marriage provisions sometimes referred to as “love jihad” laws. Cases and decisions on provisions in these laws are before a number of high courts and the Supreme Court of India.

Section 3 of the Madhya Pradesh Freedom Act 2021 prohibits conversion or an attempt to convert from one religion to another religion through misrepresentation, use of threat or force, fraud, undue influence, coercion, allurement, or marriage. (Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021, § 3.)

A person who desires to convert is required to give a declaration under section 10:

10. Declaration before conversion of religion:-

(1) Any person who desires to convert shall submit a declaration to that effect 60 days prior to such conversion, in prescribed Form to the District magistrate stating that he desires to convert on his own free will and without any force, coercion, undue influence or allurement.

(2) [A]ny religious priest and/or any person who intends to organize conversion shall give 60 days prior notice to the District Magistrate of the district where such conversion is proposed to be organized in such Form as may be prescribed.

(3) The District Magistrate, on receiving the information under sub-sections (1) and (2) shall give acknowledgement of such prior notice in such manner as may be prescribed.

(4) Whoever contravenes the provisions of sub-section (2) shall be punished with imprison[n]ment for a term which shall not be less than three years[,] but may extend to five years and shall also be liable to fine which shall not be less than Rupees Fifty Thousand [about US$604].

(5) No court shall take cognizance of the offence committed under this section without prior sanction of the concerned District Magistrate.


Madhya Pradesh High Court Order

In its order of November 14, the court granted the petitioners “interim protection” in relation to “marriage of two adult citizens on their volition and against any coercive action for violation” of section 10 of the act.  The court cited a number of Supreme Court judgments holding that the personal choice of adults to solemnize a marriage is integral to article 21 (“Protection of Life and Personal Liberty”) of the Constitution of India and the “realm of right to privacy”:

38. In the judgment of Supreme Court in Lata Singh (Supra), Laxmibai Chandaragi B. (Supra) it was recognised that marriage lie[s] within a core zone of privacy of a citizen which is inviolable. Right to marry a person of choice is held to be integral to Article 21 of the Constitution. In K. S. Puttaswamy (supra), the nine judges Bench has drawn the curtains on this aspect by holding that the family, marriage, procreation and sexual reorientation are all integral to the dignity of the individual. (Interim Order para. 38.)

The court also links the right to express and not express one’s choice of faith as protected under article 25 (“Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion”):

An individual has a fundamental right to decide the form of expression which includes his right to remain silent. Silence postulates a realm of privacy. The right to remain silent includes the right to decide the preferences on various aspects of life including the faith one will espouse. The Constitutional right to the freedom of religion under Article 25 has implicit within it the ability to choose a faith and the freedom to express or not express those choices to the world. (Interim Order para. 38.)

Lastly, the court also cites other High Court cases, such as the 2012 Himachal Pradesh High Court case Evangelical Fellowship of India, which also similarly declared the “offending statutory provision as illegal wherein citizen was required to inform the authorities about his wish to change the religion.” (Para. 38.)

The court found that “ex facie” (“on its face”), section 10 of the act is unconstitutional. The court concludes that “till further orders, respondent shall not prosecute the adult citizens if they solemnize marriage on their own volition and shall not take coercive action for violation of Section 10 of Act of 21.” (Para. 39.)

On November 20, 2022, it was reported that the state government of Madhya Pradesh would challenge the interim order before the Supreme Court of India. On January 3, 2022, it was reported that the Supreme Court had refused a stay on the order and “issued notice on the appeal” filed by Madhya Pradesh government.

Tariq Ahmad, Law Library of Congress
January 9, 2023

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Ahmad, Tariq. India: Madhya Pradesh High Court Issues Interim Order against Anti-conversion Law Requiring Declaration for Religious Conversion. 2023. Web Page. https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2023-01-08/india-madhya-pradesh-high-court-issues-interim-order-against-anti-conversion-law-requiring-declaration-for-religious-conversion/.

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Ahmad, T. (2023) India: Madhya Pradesh High Court Issues Interim Order against Anti-conversion Law Requiring Declaration for Religious Conversion. [Web Page] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2023-01-08/india-madhya-pradesh-high-court-issues-interim-order-against-anti-conversion-law-requiring-declaration-for-religious-conversion/.

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Ahmad, Tariq. India: Madhya Pradesh High Court Issues Interim Order against Anti-conversion Law Requiring Declaration for Religious Conversion. 2023. Web Page. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2023-01-08/india-madhya-pradesh-high-court-issues-interim-order-against-anti-conversion-law-requiring-declaration-for-religious-conversion/>.