In June 2023, a 24-year-old resident of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh eloped to Bareilly with her 30-year-old boyfriend. It was not a conventional marriage – the woman was Muslim and her husband Hindu. They got married at the town’s Banke Bihari temple and the woman converted to Hinduism.

However, the woman’s father was opposed to the union. He threatened to kill the couple to protect the honour of his family.

On July 5, the couple moved Allahabad High Court seeking protection from the woman’s father. On January 9, the court rejected their plea.

The reason was the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, popularly known as the anti-conversion law, which has put several inter-faith couples in the state in a bind.

In recent years, states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party have passed such laws to counter what they label “love jihad” – a Hindutva conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of trapping Hindu women in romantic relationships in order to convert them to Islam.

The 24-year-old woman and her husband were one of nine inter-faith couples to whom the Allahabad High Court denied protection in January alone.

In identical orders, Justice Saral Srivastava rejected pleas because the petitioners had not complied with the provisions of the anti-conversion law.

As Scroll’s conversations with the advocates of the nine petitioners revealed, the law puts inter-faith couples at risk precisely when they are seeking protection from violence from family members.

Some of the advocates said that the petitioners had moved to comply with the procedures set out by the law months ago but have been kept hanging by the local administration.

The anti-conversion law does not have any provisions on the protection of inter-faith couples. But the advocates said that since the law was introduced in March 2021, the court has started turning down pleas for protection.

At the heart of these rejections are Sections 6, 8 and 9 of the anti-conversion law. Section 6 concerns marriage and “unlawful conversion”. The other two deal with declarations that an individual must make before and after they have converted.

In his orders, Justice Srivastava asked the nine petitioners to file fresh pleas once they “solemnise marriage after following the due procedure of law”.

Uttar Pradesh has not been a safe haven for inter-faith couples. In 2019, the Indiaspend news website documented 39 instances of vigilante violence against such couples across India between 2015 and 2018. Fifteen of them were from Uttar Pradesh – the highest number.

In 2018, the Supreme Court asked districts across states and Union Territories to set up shelter homes for runaway or distressed couples. According to a report in The Hindu in October 2022, only three states have such shelters: Haryana, Punjab and Delhi.

The Allahabad High Court. Credit: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP

A conversion certificate

The nine inter-faith couples moved Allahabad High Court between February 2023 and January 2024. Eight of them are from western Uttar Pradesh, from towns like Ghaziabad, Amroha, Moradabad, Rampur, Meerut, Saharanpur and Kanpur.

The only petitioner from the eastern part of the state is from Varanasi.

Out of the nine couples, five are women who were Hindus who converted to Islam. In two cases, Muslim women converted to Hinduism.

One inter-faith couple does not wish to convert, and, in another, both converted to Buddhism. However, the conversions did not happen under the state’s anti-conversion law. That is now coming between them and their safety.

An advocate, who asked not to be identified, told Scroll how the law – and its demand for a conversion certificate – has become a problem for interfaith couples.

The advocate from Allahabad represents a woman from Rajasthan and her husband from Amroha in Uttar Pradesh. The woman converted to Islam to marry her partner. The couple are among the nine petitioners in the Allahabad High Court.

“Who will really go and get a conversion certificate from the government under this law?” the advocate asked. “There is fear of the police as well as the families.”

Under the 2021 law, conversion is not the private matter of an individual. Section 8 of the law directs those who wish to change their religion to make a declaration of it to the district magistrate 60 days before the conversion. The “religious convertor” has to also declare the location of the conversion ceremony to the district magistrate a month before it happens.

The local administration then launches a police inquiry. There’s more. Section 9 adds that after the conversion, the individual has to share with the administration details such as their name, name of their parents, address, occupation, income, name of the priest who oversees the ceremony and the name of the witnesses.

These details are then publicly exhibited at the office of the district magistrate. In the three weeks that follow, the district magistrate records objections to the conversion. The converted individual has to appear before the district magistrate and confirm his or her identity. If this process is without hitches, the administration issues a conversion certificate.

Section 6 of the law drags inter-faith marriages into this process. It outlaws unions that are “done for sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice-versa”. It also declares that “all the provisions of Section 8 and 9 shall apply for such marriages to be solemnised”.

The burden to prove that conversion before or after marriage is lawful rests on the “person who caused the conversion”, says Section 12 of the law.

“If one tries to get the certificate from the district magistrate, the word will reach the father,” the Allahabad advocate pointed out. “Do you think the father will agree to the union?”

While the wishes of parents are not binding on any adults, under Indian law, the anti-conversion law opens up inter-faith couples to scrutiny from their families. Section 4 of the anti-conversion law allows “any aggrieved person”, immediate family members or anyone “related to him/her by blood, marriage or adoption” to file an FIR against the conversion if it is done through “misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or any fraudulent means”.

The law is not just a problem for those who wish to convert to Islam. A Ghaziabad resident’s wife was born Muslim but wants to convert to the Hindu faith.

Their counsel, Birendra Kumar Mishra, said that procuring a conversion certificate for an inter-faith union – by design – is now dependent on the consent of the couple’s families. “When someone has run away from their family, it is safe to assume that their family does not agree to their marriage,” he said. “So naturally, the parents do not approve. And if the parents do not approve, how will the district magistrate approve?”

Justice Srivastava denied relief to the Ghaziabad resident and his wife on January 9.

Then come safety concerns. Pradeep Kumar Kashyap, the counsel of a Moradabad woman, who converted to Islam, and her husband, told Scroll that the woman did file a conversion application with the district magistrate, but did not show up for the in-person verification, as Section 9 dictates, because she feared for her life.

“Before she got any protection, she could have been a victim of honour killing [by family members] if she went to the district magistrate,” said Kashyap. “That was the fear. This is a matter of a Hindu-Muslim couple after all.”

Since the Moradabad woman did not have the certificate, on January 16, Justice Srivastava rejected her and her husband’s plea for protection. “They told me that they would get a certificate and file a fresh petition,” said Kashyap. “But I haven’t heard from them since.”

Undoing legal protection

According to the Allahabad advocate, before 2021, the Allahabad High Court would cite Supreme Court judgements like Lata Singh v. State of UP to grant protection to inter-faith couples. The 2006 judgement directed local administrations throughout India to protect inter-caste and inter-faith couples – if they are not minors – from harassment, threats and violence.

In November 2020, for instance, the court granted protection to at least 125 inter-caste and inter-faith couples. Justice Srivastava has passed such orders himself.

However, since the anti-conversion law came into force, it has become difficult for interfaith couples to secure legal protection, said the advocate.

In 2023, the Allahabad advocate’s clients got married in an Islamic ceremony against the wishes of their parents – from whom they now seek protection. After the ceremony, the woman converted to Islam by signing an affidavit of her conversion before a notary, a state-appointed official who witnesses signatures in legal documents. But this method is not recognised by the 2021 law.

“This law is only increasing criminality,” said the advocate. “People have not stopped converting. Ninety nine per cent of conversions these days are still happening through notaries. The administration should look into this.”

The protracted process

Despite the Allahabad advocate’s pessimism, at least two of the nine petitioners had obtained protection from the Allahabad High Court in 2023.

In February, Justice Syed Aftab Husain Rizvi directed local authorities to ensure that a 30-year-old Varanasi resident, and her Muslim husband, 29, were not harassed by her father. The father, said the couple, could “eliminate them for the honour of their family”, and if the court did not grant protection, “their lives may be endangered”.

In August, Justice Ram Manohar Narayan Mishra granted protection to the 24-year-old woman from Rampur, who converted to Hinduism, and her husband ​​who were “apprehending danger to their life and liberty” from the woman’s father who was “hurling constant threats” of honour killing and “interfering in their marital life”.

Both these orders, however, were conditional. Justice Rizvi said that the woman must convert and marry under the anti-conversion law. For this, the couple must move an application under Sections 8 and 9 of law. If the process was not completed within two months of the order, the protection would be “automatically vacated”.

Justice Mishra’s order did not spell out such a condition. But the 24-year-old Muslim woman’s counsel, Bhaskar Bhadra, told Scroll that the judge asked the couple to obtain a conversion certificate and appear for a hearing a month later.

According to Justice Mishra’s order, the Additional Chief Standing Counsel for the state told the court that since the woman is Muslim and her husband Hindu, “this is the case of inter-religion relationship and marriage is prohibited in the light of Section 8 and 9” of the law.

Later in the year, Justice Mishra shifted to a double bench to hear matters pertaining to criminal appeals. Justice Rizvi moved to a single bench to hear civil disputes. In January, the 30-year-old woman and the 24-year-old woman’s cases were listed before Justice Srivastava.

Neither of them have obtained a conversion certificate so far. The former’s counsel, Irfan Raza Khan, said that she had converted to Islam nearly a decade ago and could not provide a date or witnesses for her conversion.

The local administration made this a basis to reject her application under a law that came into effect in 2021. “We have challenged the mention of date and witnesses in the application under the [anti-conversion] law in the Allahabad High Court,” said Khan, who added that he had brought to the attention of the judge that law was being applied retrospectively.

Advocate Girish Kumar Gupta, the counsel for the 30-year-old’s father, told Scroll that her claim of converting a decade ago is an oral admission not backed by evidence.

The 24-year-old Rampur woman’s application to convert to Hinduism is still pending with the local administration, said Bhadra. “Where will these two go?” he added. “It takes at least six months to get a certificate. One could get legal protection earlier. Things have changed now.”

Advocate Sunil Kumar Srivastava, who is representing a Saharanpur resident and her Muslim live-in partner, agreed. “The conversion procedure laid out in the new law is very lengthy,” he said.