Published on: 02 September 2023 at 13:30 IST
The Supreme Court has responded to a plea filed by the chairperson of the Broadwell Christian Hospital Society in Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh, along with others who have been accused in a case related to alleged forceful religious conversion.
The Court has granted interim protection to the petitioners, shielding them from any coercive actions.
The petitioners challenged a July 2023 order by the Allahabad High Court, which had refused to dismiss the proceedings in three new First Information Reports (FIRs) initiated against them by the state police in connection with this case. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court had provided protection to the petitioners concerning the initial FIR.
Senior Advocate CU Singh, representing the petitioners, requested a halt to further investigation into the three subsequent FIRs, citing a severe misuse of the criminal justice system. He argued that the abuse was quite egregious, as the first FIR was filed in 2022, following an incident on Maundy Thursday in April 2022. During this event, a congregation at a church was locked inside by a mob chanting slogans and making threats.
The police responded, resulting in one complaint encompassing the entire incident. Subsequently, three complainants stated that they were part of the group at the church and had heard about alleged conversion activities.
Chief Justice Chandrachud inquired, “Are the three subsequent FIRs against the same individuals who are petitioners here?” Singh confirmed that these FIRs pertained to the same individuals and the same incident, and were filed nine months after the initial FIR, with two of them being filed within seven minutes of each other.
The Chief Justice agreed to hear the plea and granted interim protection to the petitioners, saying, “No coercive steps should be taken regarding these FIRs either. You have the liberty to serve the standing counsel. We are granting protection concerning all four FIRs.”
Singh attempted to clarify the reason for seeking the quashing of the proceedings, but Chief Justice Chandrachud interrupted, saying, “Serve them, and let them come. Today, we are issuing notice and putting a stay on this. We are granting you protection.”
This legal dispute arises from a series of complaints filed by right-wing groups under Uttar Pradesh’s anti-conversion law against the petitioners, alleging mass conversion. Based on these complaints, Uttar Pradesh police registered multiple FIRs against the petitioners, including Mathew Samuel, the chairperson of the Broadwell Christian Hospital Society, under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021.
The incident that led to these police complaints occurred in April of the previous year. In the lead-up to Easter celebrations, members of Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal reportedly disrupted a congregation gathered to observe Maundy Thursday at the Evangelical Church of India in Hariharganj, Fatehpur.
Right-wing groups alleged that nearly 90 Hindus were forcibly converted to Christianity over a 40-day period with the assistance of Broadwell Christian Hospital’s workers. This resulted in the arrest of several individuals, including prominent members of the Christian community in Fatehpur.
Reports also suggest that the Evangelical Church of India filed a complaint with the state minorities’ commission, alleging that a mob entered the church, vandalized religious texts, and coerced congregation members to chant religious slogans.
Earlier this year, Samuel and other petitioners sought protection from the Supreme Court, denying all allegations of mass conversion after the Allahabad High Court declined to dismiss an FIR against them. In March, a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud issued notice and ordered that no coercive action be taken against them until further instructions.
The petitioners have now returned to the Supreme Court, seeking the quashing of proceedings related to three subsequent FIRs filed by the Uttar Pradesh police regarding the same incident.