Shimla: Striking down a penal provision in the Himachal Pradesh of Religion Act, 2006 under which a person, who failed to give due notice before converting into another religion, could be fined, the High Court held the section to be partially invalid.
Allowing the petition of Evangelical Fellowship of India and others to a limited extent that had challenged the Religion Act, the division bench of Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Rajiv Sharma on Wednesday held that “all other provisions of the Act and Rules are — legal and valid” but struck down Section 4 of the Act and Rule 3 and 5 of HP Freedom of Religion Rules 2007 to be in violation of constitutional provisions.
Writing for the bench, Justice Gupta observes that “a person not only has a right of conscience, the right of belief, the right to change his belief, but also has the right to keep his beliefs secret.”
While Section 4 of the Act lays down that a person intending to convert from one religion to another needs to give 30 days’ notice prior to conversion to the district magistrate (DM), who has to get the matter enquired into, however, no notice is required should he want to revert back to his original religion.
Should a person fail to give notice about the intended religious conversion, it would be treated as an offence punishable with a maximum fine of Rs 1000/-.
Under Rule 3 framed to implement the act, the DM after getting the matter about conversion notice enquired into but before passing an order needed to provide adequate opportunity to the person giving notice and any other person who is likely to be prejudicially affected.
Under Rule 5, if the DM is of the view that the conversion has taken place without requisite notice, a police case had to be registered in the matter.
Observing that the remedy proposed by the state may prove to be more harmful than the problem, the judges struck down the contentious sections and rules as they were adversely affecting the fundamental rights of a person who is converting.
Broadly referred to as an Anti Conversion Law, the case had attracted much interest and many individuals and bodies which included noted legal luminary Subramanian Swamy, Shri Bharmin Sabha – Shimla, Shree Sanatan Dharam Sabha and others had filed applications.
The court had permitted them to intervene but not as respondents to the petition that had challenged the constitutional validity of the very Act.
While Swamy had contended that conversions are against Hindu philosophy and should not be permitted, the court held that “conversions in our country are permissible if the conversion is by the free will of the convertee.”
After drawing a comparative analysis of similar acts passed by Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, the judges noted that the Himachal act had gone beyond the other two Acts and had infringed on fundamental rights of the convertee.
In response to an argument that Islam and Christianity were proselytizing religions and spreading the word of God was an inherent part of these religions and the state could not put any restriction on this religious practice, the judges noted that the Supreme Court in no uncertain terms had held that though the right to propagate may be a fundamental right, but there is no fundamental right to convert.