SC grants interim bail to SHUATS VC in conversion case, Allahabad HC judge recuses from related matter

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In a significant development, the Supreme Court on March 4 granted interim bail to Rajendra Bihari Lal, the Vice Chancellor of Uttar Pradesh’s Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences (SHUATS), in a case of alleged illegal religious conversion. The apex court’s decision comes after the Allahabad High Court had not been hearing Lal’s bail plea, despite him being in custody since December 31, 2023.

A bench comprising Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra issued a notice to the Uttar Pradesh government on Lal’s plea challenging the Allahabad High Court’s order. The top court noted the high court’s inaction on Lal’s bail application and granted him interim bail, setting the bail bond amount at a maximum of Rs 25,000.

Senior advocate Siddharth Dave, representing Lal, submitted that the petitioner was arrested despite the Supreme Court’s earlier order. The Uttar Pradesh police had earlier alleged that Lal and other accused were the main perpetrators of a mass religious conversion program involving foreign funds from about 20 countries.

The case dates back to December 2023 when a vacation bench of the Supreme Court had stayed the Allahabad High Court’s order directing Lal and other SHUATS officials to surrender by December 20, 2023. The High Court had also refused to quash an FIR against them for allegedly coercing a woman into adopting Christianity by offering her employment and other inducements.

In its order, the High Court had emphasised that no genuine religious entity would condone such malpractices, stating, “No God or true Church or Temple or Mosque would approve such type of malpractices.” The FIR alleged that the victim, a lower-middle-class woman, was lured into Christianity through gifts and clothing, with the accused pressuring her to bring other women for conversion and illegal activities. The victim also claimed to have been subjected to regular sexual exploitation.

Meanwhile, in a separate but related development, Justice Manju Rani Chauhan of the Allahabad High Court recused herself last week from hearing a bail application filed by SHUATS director Vinod Bihari Lal in a case lodged against him for allegedly causing grievous hurt to a person. This comes days after the single judge expressed dissatisfaction with the quality and adequacy of counter-affidavits filed by the state government counsels in various pending matters.

The court had pulled up the state counsels for their inability to file “up to the mark” counter-affidavits and directed the authorities to develop a mechanism to ensure the drafting of effective, coherent, and comprehensive counter-affidavits. The stringent observations were made during the hearing of Lal’s bail plea, where the court noted that the counter-affidavit seemed to have been drafted heedlessly and in a casual manner.

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