In its most recent interim report, the Justice Dharmadhikari committee set up in 2010 to recommend measures to strengthen women’s safety has proposed the enactment of a law against forced religious conversions of women through fraudulent marriages.
The report, submitted to the state home department last week, is the final in a series the committee has released over the last four years. In September, the panel advocated a total ban on dance bars in Maharashtra and a policy to check vulgarity on social networking websites. Other suggestions made in the final report include joint ownership of farmlands by husband and wife, and eliminating nudity from films.
The guideline that stands out, however, is the one that makes a case for a strong law against forced conversions through marriage, echoing extremist fears of so-called love jihad.
“Forcibly converting someone, either through fraud, entrapment or by luring the person is unconstitutional and illegal,” the report says in Marathi. “Madhya Pradesh and Orissa already have laws against such conversions. These days, there is a growing number of cases of women being raped after the promise of marriage or being trapped and forced to convert. We need a law against such forced conversions to prevent the exploitation of women in this manner.”
While the Constitution provides safeguards against forced religious conversions, the specific reference in the report to fraudulent marriages is reminiscent of the right-wing definition of “love jihad”.
Justice Chandrashekhar Dharmadhikari, the former Bombay High Court chief justice who is the chairman of the committee, declined to comment about love jihad, but claimed it would be good for Maharashtra to follow in the footsteps of Orissa and Madhya Pradesh purely on principle.
“If one believes all religions are equal and the same, then, as Mahatma Gandhi said, there is no need for conversion,” Dharmadhikari told Scroll.in. “But I don’t want to refer to any specific cases in Maharashtra.”
This is precisely why critics have lashed out at Dharmadhikari and his committee’s report.
“On what grounds has the committee assumed that such forced conversions through fraudulent marriage are taking place?” said Flavia Agnes, a prominent lawyer in Mumbai. “Has it cited a single case? The recommendation is ridiculous.”
Abbas Mookhtiar, a Mumbai-based advocate, notes that the propaganda created around girls getting enticed to marry and then being forcibly converted is hollow and politically-motivated.
“What the report refers to is based on mere conjectures, surmises and hearsay,” said Mookhtiar. “It does not indicate any study or give statistics of how many such cases have been reported. Chapter 20 in the Indian Penal Code, which deals with offences related to marriage, can be suitably amended to address issues of forced conversions instead of enacting a separate law for the same.”
Agnes believes the bigger cause of worry in Maharashtra is the growing instances of Dalit boys getting murdered for having relationships with upper-caste girls. “Instead, the report plays into right-wing sentiments by focusing on love jihad,” she said.
However, other lawyers believe that the Dharmadhikari committee has identified the general sentiment and suggested an appropriate precaution for a legitimate threat. “Maharashtra may not have many such cases of forced conversion through marriage now, but we are heading towards that,” claimed family lawyer Mridula Kadam. “So we do need an effective law.”
The many recommendations of the Dharmadhikari committee in the past four years have been taken fairly seriously by the state government as well as by the Bombay High Court.
So far, the government has accepted 109 out of the 141 suggestions made in the five interim reports. The court has on several occasions asked the government to implement the committee’s remaining proposals as well.
“Occasionally, the courts cite the committee’s reports while giving judgements, so even if there is no basis to recommendations like this one, there is a chance that it will be taken seriously,” said Agnes.
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