On November 24, the Uttar Pradesh government promulgated the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance. The law makes the private choice of a person who converts to another religion subject to the whims of the government of the day.

This directly violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private”.

Much of the conversation around the legislation has revolved around how it further seeks to marginalise Indian Muslims, given that the ordinance came after the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath had spoken of “love jihad”: a Hindu nationalist conspiracy theory that claims than Muslim men masquerade as Hindus in order to woo Hindu women with the aim of converting them to Islam.

On October 31, Adityanath said that anyone who “conceals their identity and plays with our sister’s respect” will face their funerals (“ram nam satya hai ki yatra”).

To this end, the ordinance simply bans conversion due to marriage.

State terror

The result of this law has been horrific, with both police as well as vigilante action against inter-religious couples. In the most egregious case, a couple trying to register their marriage on December 5 was assaulted allegedly by a Bajrang Dal mob. Given the new ordinance, the state came to the rescue of the mob. The man, Rashid Ali, was arrested and the woman, Pinki, sent off to a shelter. Pinki alleges that she was made to suffer a miscarriage while she was in state custody.

A video of the December 5 assault shows Pinki standing up to the Bajrang Dal arguing, “I am an adult, I am 22 years old. I got married of my own free will on the 24th of July. This is the fifth month that we have been married.”

This seems common sense in a modern democracy that an adult woman would be able to decide who to marry.

Restricting women’s right to choose

One of the features of the ordinance – and indeed the Hindutva idea of “love jihad” itself – is that an adult, Hindu woman is not capable enough to make her own romantic choices. The measure implies that she will have to be controlled either by the state or her own family. The law allows any relative to make a complaint, overruling the decision of the actual couple getting married.

It also lays out extra punishment if the person getting converted is a woman. Expectedly, conversion to your “previous religion” is allowed, based on the Hindutva belief that while Hindus will convert to other religions, the reverse will rarely happen.

Interestingly, while the politics of the act has attacked Muslim men-Hindu women unions, using the legislation, the Adityanath government has also tried to strike a blow at the Ambedkarite strategy of religious conversion.

Attack on Ambedkarism

Mass conversions now stand barred with a punishment that may extend to 10 years in jail. To put that in perspective, the penalty for causing the death of a human being by negligence is two years at the maximum.

Moreover, any individual conversions need to be vetted by the state government. Conversions due to “force, undue influence, coercion, allurement” – defined widely to include almost any proselytisation activity – are also banned.

Mass conversions have long been used as a weapon by Dalits and backward caste Hindus to press for their rights. In a speech to the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference in 1936, BR Ambedkar argued that so long as the Dalits “remain Hindus, you will have to struggle for social intercourse, for food and water, and for inter-caste marriages”.

Hinduism, Ambedkar argued, had assigned Dalits “the role of the slave”. He exhorted them: “If you want to be free, you must change your religion.”

Ambedkar himself followed through on this, converting to Buddhism in 1956 as part of a mass conversion ceremony. In 1981, more than a 1,000 Dalits converted to Islam in Tamil Nadu’s Meenakshipuram, as a reaction to caste oppression from the landed Marava caste.

In 2002, in Jhajjar, Haryana, after a mob beat five Dalits to death on suspicion that they were hiding a dead cow, hundreds of Dalits converted to Buddhism, Islam and Christianity as a protest.

Just in October, more than 200 Dalits from the Valmiki caste converted to Buddhism in protests against the alleged gangrape and murder of a Valmiki teenager in Hathras by a group of upper caste men.

Uttar Pradesh’s curbs against conversion, while egregious, thus have their own history. Conversions by backward castes Hindus and Dalits have long been seen as illegitimate by upper-caste Hindus across a range of backgrounds. In 1941, Mohandas Gandhi for example, opposed missionary activity amongst Dalits with this curious argument:

“Would you, Dr. Mott [a Christian evangelist], preach the Gospel to a cow? Well, some of the untouchables are worse than cows in understanding. I mean they can no more distinguish between the relative merits of Islam and Hinduism and Christianity than a cow.”

Restricting the right to choose

Similar arguments won out in various states, starting 1967, when Odisha passed a law severely restricting the act of religious conversion. In 1973, the Odisha High Court issued arguments backing the state’s anti-conversion law by using logic very similar to Gandhi’s. The law was needed to protect people from the “down trodden sections of society” since they possessed an “undeveloped mind”.

In 1977, the Supreme Court itself upheld anti-conversion laws and declare that conversion, by itself, was not a right, and could be regulated by the state. This despite the fact that “propagation of religion” is a fundamental right according to the Indian Constitution.

Of course, while Adityanath has pushed communalism in order to politically sell the law, this by itself is based on weak foundations. For one, the conspiracy theory of “love jihad” has already been investigated by Adityanath’s government itself and found to be exactly that: a conspiracy theory with no basis in reality.

To add to that, inter-religious marriages in India itself are barely existent. One calculation – using data from Kerala – shows that only 0.36% of marriages occur between followers of different faiths. This is hardly surprising. Long traditions of endogamy mean that even inter-caste marriages are themselves very rare in India.

As pernicious as the idea of banning interfaith unions are, given their tiny number, Adityanath’s act will perhaps limit more Ambedkarite conversions, attempting to put a cap on an act that is extremely pernicious to the idea of Hindu nationalism.