In a significant development involving forced religious conversion, the Supreme Court, on December 19, granted temporary protection from arrest to administrators and faculty of Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology, and Sciences (SHUATS). The vacation bench, consisting of Justices Aniruddha Bose and KV Viswanathan, also sought the Uttar Pradesh government’s response, scheduling the case for reopening, subject to directives from the Chief Justice of India.
The Supreme Court’s intervention came in response to a petition filed by the Director of SHUATS, Vinod Bihari Lal, his brother Rajendra Bihari Lal, the Vice-Chancellor, and five other professors. The case revolves around an attempt to convert people to Christianity, as alleged by an ex-university Hindi stenographer in a complaint filed on November 4. The petitioners sought permanent anticipatory bail and the quashing of the case after the Allahabad High Court dismissed their appeal on December 11, directing them to surrender by December 20.
Senior Advocate Siddhartha Dave, representing the petitioners, argued the urgency of the case, emphasizing the violation of the right to anticipatory bail. The bench issued notice to the Uttar Pradesh government and stayed the High Court order until January 5, stating, “There shall be a stay on impugned judgment till January 12, or until further orders, whichever is earlier.”
This is not the first time the Lal brothers faced legal scrutiny regarding religious conversion. In a separate case earlier in March 2023, the Supreme Court had halted their arrest, seeking the response of the State of Uttar Pradesh.
The FIR in this case, filed in April 2022, stemmed from a complaint by Himanshu Dixit, alleging an attempt to convert around 90 Hindus to Christianity at the Evangelical Church of India in Hariharganj, Fatehpur. Officials questioned Pastor Vijay Massiah, who admitted to a 34-day ongoing conversion process. Notably, an earlier FIR had been filed against eight SHUATS officials, including the vice-chancellor, under the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance 2020.
Further investigations unveiled additional legal issues for SHUATS. In January 2023, the Kotwali Police station in Fatehpur seized 70 bank accounts associated with the university and the trust founded by RB Lal. Vice-Chancellor Bishop Rajendra B Lal heads the Yeshu Darbar Trust, an NGO conducting religious congregations in multiple locations.
The university faced renewed scrutiny with two old cases resurfacing. One from 2012 accused the university’s top officials of obtaining arm licenses illegally, and the other questioned the grant of minority status to SHUATS. While the 2012 case was investigated, the current Special Task Force (STF) is looking into the minority status designation, revealing an intricate legal web surrounding SHUATS.
As the legal saga unfolds, the Supreme Court’s interim order provides a temporary shield to SHUATS administrators and faculty, prompting further examination into the complex issues surrounding religious conversion, alleged coercion, and legal discrepancies within the university.