Former Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur has criticised the Uttar Pradesh government’s ordinance criminalising religious conversion via marriage, saying it puts freedom of choice and dignity “on the backseat”, Live Law reported on Monday.

The ordinance was promulgated by Uttar Pradesh Governor Anandiben Patel on November 28, days after it was passed by the Adityanath-led state Cabinet. Hours later, the police registered their first case against a Muslim man in the state’s Bareilly district.

Lokur, while delivering a public lecture on Sunday, said that laws against interfaith marriages violated jurisprudence developed by the Supreme Court. “States of Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana, Assam are planning to come up with similar ordinances,” he said. “The purpose of this law is to prohibit what is popularly known as love jihad.”

“Love jihad” is a conspiracy theory used by right-wing groups who accuse Muslim men of using marriage as a lure to force Hindu women to convert to Islam. The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, makes religious conversion a non-bailable offence, inviting penalties of up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.

“Although ‘love jihad’ has no definition, one chief minister has defined it as ‘jihadis playing with the honour and dignity of our sisters and daughter by hiding their real names and identities’,” Lokur said in his address.

He added:

“Another chief minister went to the extent of saying that ‘if these jihadis don’t mend their ways, it is the beginning of the journey to their graves’. Is this possible death sentence already pronounced sanctioned under the Constitution or by the law? This seems to be a resurgence of the trend of mob lynching. What about the freedom of choice? Why not declare a war on child marriage, which by definition is a forced marriage?”

— Former Supreme Court judge Madan B Lokur

“Giving a backseat to freedom of choice, dignity and human rights, a stringent ordinance related to marriage and forcible conversion has recently been passed in Uttar Pradesh,” Lokur said. “Are we as a society prepared for this?”

The former judge also questioned what would happen to earlier Supreme Court judgements, which have ruled that states have no jurisdiction over an adult’s absolute right to choose a life partner, according to the Hindustan Times.

He referred to a 2018 case involving a 24-year-old woman named Hadiya who had been born into a Hindu family. The Kerala High Court had annulled her marriage with a Muslim man, despite the woman insisting that it was a decision she had made of her own free choice. In March 2018, the Supreme Court overturned that decision. In its judgement, the Supreme Court had raised questions about whether courts can intervene in consensual relationships between consenting adults.

More recently, the Allahabad High Court had last month struck down a previous order that had deemed religious conversions only for the sake of marriage unacceptable, saying that the decision was “not good in law”. A division bench of Justices Vivek Agarwal and Pankaj Naqvi noted that interference in a personal relationship would constitute a serious encroachment on the right to freedom of choice of two individuals.

“To disregard the choice of a person who is of the age of majority would not only be antithetic to the freedom of choice of a grown up individual but would also be a threat to the concept of unity in diversity,” the court had said. The observations were made when the High Court quashed a case filed against a Muslim man by the parents of his wife, who had converted to Islam last year to marry him.

In February, the Centre told the Lok Sabha that no “case of ‘love jihad’ has been reported by any of the central agencies”. Investigations by the National Investigation Agency, the Karnataka Criminal Investigation Department, the Uttar Pradesh Special Investigation Team and others have turned up no evidence for this alleged conspiracy. The National Commission for Women maintains no data about “love jihad” too.