Amid strong opposition, the Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Bill, 2021, was passed by the state Assembly on Thursday by a voice vote, NDTV reported.

The anti-conversion Bill was approved by the state Cabinet on Monday and tabled in Assembly on Wednesday despite criticism from the Opposition.

The 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.

Even after the Bill’s passage in the Karnataka Assembly, it still needs to be approved by the state’s Legislative Council. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party does not have a majority in the 75-member Upper House. The BJP has 32 seats in the Legislative Council, Congress has 29, Janata Dal (Secular) 12 and there is one Independent candidate.

Bill brought in by Congress: BJP

During the discussion in the Assembly, Law Minister JC Madhu Swamy placed documents to show that the draft of a Bill on similar lines was brought in by Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in 2016, reported The Hindu.

After going through the documents, Speaker Vishveshwara Hegde Kageri said the draft Bill by the Congress was scrutinised by then Law Minister TB Jayachandra on November 16, 2016. After this, Siddaramaiah had said that it should be placed before the state Cabinet but it did not happen, the Speaker said.

Siddaramaiah first denied it but after verifying the documents admitted that the draft Bill was prepared when he was the chief minister.

However, he added: “We did not go ahead with the draft Bill. Hence, it is not proper to blame us by saying that we prepared the ground for tabling the present Bill.”

The Congress leader claimed that the Bill prepared by the Bharatiya Janata Party government was different from the 2016 draft.

The Congress described the BJP’s Bill as draconian and anti-human. The party also alleged that it had been introduced to target a particular community.

Meant to protect people, says law minister

Explaining the Bill, Swamy said it is meant to protect the public and was introduced based on data.

“We are bringing the Bill because all these provisions are envisaged in the Constitution, but there is no punishment,” he said. “It says that it [forceful conversion] is an offence. It is an illegal activity.”

On the harsh penalties in the proposed law, the law minister said that the punishment depends on the degree of the offence. He also rejected the Opposition’s allegations that the Bill was communal and politically motivated, saying it was based wrong assumption.

“We are not targeting any community here,” he added. “There are conversions from Islam to Christianity, Christianity to some other religion and nowadays, we also have Hindu organisations converting Christians to Hinduism. So, we are not targeting any religion.”

Several groups, including the Christian community and human rights organisations, have opposed the Bill, saying it can be misused to target religious minorities. They held a massive protest against the legislation in Bengaluru on Wednesday.

In the Assembly on Thursday, the law minister also dismissed concerns that fringe elements could try to take advantage of the proposed law to harass people, saying that complaints regarding conversions can be filed only by relatives or colleagues of the individual who is getting converted.

“The Bill clearly mentions colleagues because if someone was entitled to some benefits under scheduled caste or under some reservation category, and if he converts to another religion then he will lose his benefits,” Swamy told NDTV. “From the time of conversion, he is not entitled to the benefits. If he continues to enjoy benefits even after converting, his colleagues can complain.”

Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai suggested that the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities were vulnerable to forced conversions and the Bill was meant to protect them.

“Is it wrong for us to penalise those who are taking advantage of the illiteracy of women and trying to convert them with allurement?” he asked.

The anti-conversion Bill

The Basavaraj Bommai-led Cabinet began discussing the 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.