The Union Government has filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court demurring the standing of social activist Teesta Setalvad’s NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP). In the affidavit, the Ministry of Home Affairs pointed out the established position of law and stated that the background and credentials of the petitioner would be a pertinent consideration for a constitutional court to adjudicate whether to have confidence in such a petitioner with a petition or not. The bench was presided over by Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud, Justices P S Narasimha and J B Pardiwala.
The ministry pointed out that the petitioner is guilty of amassing huge funds abusing the sufferings of riot-affected people, for which there are ongoing criminal proceedings against Teesta Setalvad and other office bearers.
The brief affidavit also alleged that the petitioner purposely engages in divisive politics to disrupt order and divide society on religious and communal lines. Parallel activities of the petitioner organisation were also witnessed in other states, of which Assam is a recent example. “I state and submit that the petitioner herein purports to act in public interest in which it selectively takes up the public cause for the object and intent other than the public interest”, read the Centre’s affidavit. It added that if the petitioner is challenging the current petition solely in public interest, it cannot have any objection if the same issue is gone into by this court in other proceedings.
Senior advocate CU Singh appeared for the NGO. He argued that anti-conversion laws result in undue interference in a person’s right of choice of faith and life partner. He said each state’s law is referred to by the other as a “building block” to make a more “virulent” law for itself.
CJP had challenged the provisions of laws in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh which imposed a legal obligation that prior permission should be sought for religious conversions for marriage. The NGO’s petition is the prime matter in the set of petitions challenging the anti-conversion laws passed by various States. Apart from them, Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind has filed a transfer petition seeking to transfer the petitions to the Supreme Court, pending in several High Courts challenging the anti-conversion laws. Their plea was against the laws promulgated for the prohibition of “love jihad” and other means of illegal religious conversion, asserting that the laws enforced for the prohibition of illegal religious conversion can be used to indict any person who is in a better position vis-a-vis the converted person.
Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal mentioned the petition before the bench on January 30. The petition was filed against the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021; the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018; the Himachal Pradesh Freedom Of Religion Act, 2019; the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 and the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021.
During the last hearing, CJI Chandrachud had asked regarding the stage of the proceedings before the High Courts. Senior Advocate Indira Jaising, appearing on behalf of one of the petitioners, responded that the matters were at different stages.
The Government stated that the prayers outlined in the CJP petition are similar to those in the other petitions and that the Supreme Court could as well look into those other petitions.
Attorney General R Venkataramani told the Supreme Court that he has “serious objections” over appeals seeking the transfer of the pending petitions challenging the anti-conversion laws from various High Courts to the top court. “These are state legislations. The state High Courts must hear these matters”, he said.
Chief Justice DY Chandrachud had formerly asked the petitioners to file pleas seeking to transfer their cases pending in different High Courts to the Supreme Court for an authoritative decision. The bench said that it will hear his objections and listed the matters for hearing on February 3.