Journalists were stopped from entering the Karnataka Assembly before the debate on the state’s anti-conversion Bill on Wednesday, reported The Indian Express.

On Wednesday morning, Assembly officials told the journalists that Speaker Vishweshwar Hegde Kageri had directed to not let them inside the House. They did not give a reason for the decision. However, Hegde said that he had not given any such directions.

The Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, was tabled in the Assembly on Tuesday amid protests from the Opposition. The state Cabinet had approved the Bill on Monday.

The draft Bill proposes maximum punishment of a jail term of 10 years for forcible religious conversion of women, minors and people from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes. It says that “conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, coercion, allurement or marriage’’ is prohibited.

The journalists were later allowed to enter the Assembly building, but the discussion on the Bill did not take place on Wednesday.

In the Assembly, Congress leader and former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah said that the matters related to north Karnataka should be given priority and the draft anti-conversion Bill can be discussed on other days. He asked the Speaker to extend the session by a few more days to discuss the Bill.

Karnataka Law Minister JC Madhuswamy told the Speaker that he needed time to place the draft Bill before the state Legislative Council if it gets cleared by the Assembly. Then after a brief discussion, Kageri said that the Bill will be discussed in the first half on Thursday.

Later, journalists staged protest outside the Assembly building for being denied entry into the House.

Janata Dal (Secular) leader HD Kumaraswamy said that the Bharatiya Janata Party say they will had broken the fourth pillar of the democracy by not allowing media in the House.

“The Speaker says he doesn’t know about the media ban, but how come the media was sent a message not to attend the assembly, this is lapses of the Speaker office,” Kumaraswamy said in a tweet.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, a protest was held in Bengaluru against the Bill. It was attended by Bengaluru’s Archbishop Peter Machado, who has opposed the proposed law in the past, reported NDTV. The archbishop had said in October that the Bill tends to target the Christian community only.

On Wednesday, Machado said that 40 human rights groups were participating in the protest.

“We [the Christian community] tried it in the past – we have approached the government but the government was not listening,” he said. “But now that the contents of the bill are read by others, they say it is not affecting only Christians. It is affecting larger society the question of privacy, the question of marriage, the question of women, Dalits, [and] Muslims.”

The Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) are also opposing the proposed law.

If the Bill is passed in the Karnataka Assembly, it then needs to be approved by the state’s Legislative Council. However, the BJP does not have a majority in the 75-member Upper House.

The BJP has 32 seats in the Legislative Council, Congress has 29, JD(S) 12 and there is one Independent candidate.

The anti-conversion Bill

The Basavaraj Bommai-led Cabinet began discussing an anti-conversion law in September. The chief minister had claimed on September 29 that forcible religious conversions had become rampant in the state.

However, a report released by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties on December 14 listed 39 incidents of violence against Christians in Karnataka between January and November. The report noted that the state has seen a sharp increase in violent attacks led by Hindutva groups on Christians during prayer meetings.

The human rights organisation’s report also found that the police in Karnataka had colluded with Hindutva groups that attacked Christian worshippers in the state.

BJP-led state governments in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh have enacted anti-conversion laws since last year to penalise “love jihad”. The pejorative term has been used by Hindutva outfits to push the conspiracy theory that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marrying them with the sole purpose of converting their brides to Islam.

On August 19, the Gujarat High Court had ordered a stay on several sections of the state’s law, including one that defined interfaith marriage as a reason for forceful conversion. The state government had said that it will approach the Supreme Court against the order.