The Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (MP), where the Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in power, is set to pass a bill that hands out a prison term of up to 10 years for anyone found guilty of using marriage to force someone to change religion, Indian media outlets reported.
If passed by the assembly, MP will become the second state to approve such legislation after the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, where also Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is in power, passed a similar bill last month.
The bill, which was approved by the MP cabinet during a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, will be presented in a session of the legislative assembly later in the month.
According to the bill, advance notice of two months is required to change religion before marriage. Only after a district magistrate approves the application can a couple move ahead with their marriage; otherwise it will hold no legal value.
The proposed law will hand out a prison term of up to five years for anyone found guilty of using marriage to force someone to change religion along with substantial monetary fines. State Home Minister Narottam Mishra said the prison term will be between two to 10 years for those found guilty of converting someone who is underage or belongs to a scheduled tribe or caste.
The burden of proof will also fall on the accused, and those associated with them, to exonerate themselves of the claim.
These moves follow a campaign by the BJP against inter-faith marriages.
The party describes such marriages as ‘love jihad’, an unproven conspiracy theory used by its leaders and Hindu hardline groups to accuse Muslim men of converting Hindu women by marriage.
Chouhan said instances had arisen where people would wed daughters of influential individuals and then field them as political candidates to secure votes. He said they won’t allow this to happen to “innocent girls” anymore and that he recently rescued “underaged girls from various places”.
Amid a rising tide of Hindu nationalism in India under Modi, Hindu hardline groups have long accused minority Muslims of taking over the country by persuading Hindu women to marry them and convert to Islam.
Although India’s constitution is secular and provides protection to all faiths, the issue of ‘love jihad’ has gripped headlines and pitted Modi’s party leaders against secular activists.
India’s investigating agencies and courts have, however, rejected the ‘love jihad’ theory, which many see as part of an anti-Muslim agenda by Modi’s party.