Federal Court declares unilateral conversion unlawful

M. Indira Gandhi (centre) speaks to reporters during a press conference after the Federal Court annulled the unilateral conversion of her three children in Putrajaya January 29, 2018. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli
M. Indira Gandhi (centre) speaks to reporters during a press conference after the Federal Court annulled the unilateral conversion of her three children in Putrajaya January 29, 2018. — Picture by Zuraneeza Zulkifli

PUTRAJAYA, Jan 29 — In a landmark ruling that finally clarifies the issue of unilateral conversions to Islam, the Federal Court today declared that the consent of both parents was needed to convert a minor’s faith.

Months after Putrajaya dropped a legal amendment that sought to end unilateral conversion, the five-judge panel in the case of Hindu mother M. Indira Gandhi — who sought to nullify the conversion of her three children by her Muslim convert ex-husband — said the Federal Constitution clearly provides for the consent of both parents in such cases.

The panel headed by Court of Appeal president Tan Sri Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin said that the meaning of the word “parent” in the Federal Constitution in such situations was “lost in translation”.

He was referring to Article 12(4) of the Federal Constitution that states: “the religion of a person under the age of eighteen years shall be decided by his parent or guardian.”

The Bahasa Malaysia translation uses the phrase “ibu atau bapa (father or mother)” even though the rule is that singular forms also take the plural meaning when interpreting the Federal Constitution.

“The court concludes that the consent of both parents is needed before a certificate of conversion can be issued,” Justice Tan Sri Zainun Ali, who wrote the judgment, said while reading out her summary.

Zainun said the word “parent” should not be construed literally when reading the Federal Constitution, stressing that the spirit of the provision meant the term referred to both parents when applicable.

She also said the conversion was a “wrong thing”, as the children were staying with Indira and not her ex-husband at the time he unilaterally changed their faith.

His actions were tantamount to a “serious interference” with the lives of Indira and her three children, she added.

“Since she has the custody of the children, the appellant has a dominant influence in the children’s lives,” Zainun said.

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