(Secular Perspective November 16-30, 2020)
Love recognizes no barrier. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences and penetrate walls to arrive at its destination full of hope, says the celebrated author Maya Angelou. This also sums up the story of thousands of couples in India who marry across caste and religious identity. For example, Tanvir Aeijaz, a Muslim man is married to Vineeta Sharma, a Hindu, and has a daughter named Kuhu. They live a happy life, belying people’s expectations of their marriage being a role model for secularism in India (BBC News, 2020). Sandhya Mhatre married Irfan Engineer, a Bohra Muslim, both colleagues of the author. They have been married for over 20 years respecting each other’s beliefs. None of them have converted to each other’s faith and they lead a blissfully enriched life. The author herself has been happily married to a Parsi man for over 7 years. Inter-faith marriages like the ones cited above are a lived reality to thousand such couples who have found love, companionship, respect and hope Maya Angelou talks about in the above quote. Why are we citing these examples today when it’s a banal reality in India? Banal due to multitude cases but a necessary observation given that today inter-faith marriages are smeared with politics of hatred and is in the eye of the storm where they are opposed by Hindu nationalists vehemently. The term “love jihad” is a term coined by Hindu nationalists for inter-faith marriages between Muslim man and Hindu woman where the Hindu nationalists believe that the Hindu women was “lured” into the marriage with the sole intention of converting her into Islam. These inter-faith marriages and the politics of hatred associated with it has larger ramifications at different levels- our rights and liberties in the Constitution, social fabric woven with secularism and pluralism, demonization of a particular community and the agency of women itself.
Inter-faith marriages are at the centre of public debate after Tanishq, a jewellery brand owned by the mighty Tatas, came under intense flak by Hindu nationalists who objected to an advertisement posted by Tanishq. In the heartwarming ad, a Muslim mother-in-law is shown throwing her soon mother to be Hindu daughter in law a baby shower with Hindu traditions- respecting the daughter in law’s traditions. This otherwise ad which depicts the pluralistic ethos of our society was singled out by Hindu nationalists and compelled the brand to pull down the ad and apologize for promoting “love jihad”. This comes amidst the move of state governments in Karnataka, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh to bring in a law against inter-faith marriage. Their argument for bringing in this law is that Muslim men “seduce “or “lure” Hindu women to marry them only so that they can convert them to Islam! Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister even went on to issue an open threat to life of Muslim men in a latest statement. Yogi Adityanath said, “I warn those who conceal identity and play with our sisters’ respect. If you don’t mend your ways your ‘Ram naam satya’ (chant associated with Hindu funerals) journey will begin. (Indian Express, 2020)”.
Interestingly, a few days back, Rekha Sharma, Chief of the National Commission of Women in a meeting with Bhagat Singh Koshyari Governor of Maharashtra had expressed “concern” over increasing number of cases of love jihad in the state. Her claim triggered outrage in many quarters and raised issues if love jihad has been defined in Indian laws. Is there any crime or category of crime called “love jihad”? If yes then what constitutes this crime and what is the punishment? If the crime involves violation of the rights of women then are there any complaints by women who have alleged that they were “lured” into marriage for the sole purpose of conversion which are recorded? Ironically though, back in February 2020, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kishan Reddy cited that there is no data available on “love jihad” because the term is not defined under law in India. Again after Rekha Sharma’s statements, an RTI was filed seeking information if the NCW had official data on “love jihad”. The reply to this RTI was that NCW doesn’t have any information on “love jihad” (The Wire, 2020). It is abundantly clear that there is no data on the love jihad because it is not defined under Indian laws and the allegations behind this vicious campaign are not true. Then are the state governments of the states Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Karnataka bringing this law and is it constitutional?
The Constitution of India guarantees and right to equality in article 14 and 15 and article 21 ensures protection of life and personal liberty. The right of every individual to choose their partners in matters of marriage or relationship irrespective of their religious identity falls in the ambit of article 21. Similarly, love jihad law touted as a savior of women discriminates against women in the garb of protecting women by robbing them of the right to marry someone out of their own will or even convert to another religion after marriage of out their own will. Women are infantilized and their agency completely trivialized when they are deemed incapable of making their own decisions in matters of their body and sexuality along with other matters. Such patronizing laws reinforce that women are “properties” of the communities they belong to, embodying the “honour” of that community. Bearers of this honour don’t then have the freedom to choose on their own and are lower in status. Such norms and enforcing of such norms violate women’s right to equality. Article 25 of the constitution gives every individual the right to practice, propagate and profess her/ his religion. As far as there is no force or inducement involved, every individual has the constitutional right to profess and follow any religion. Against this backdrop, Indian secularism has given democratic space to couples to marry transcending barriers of religions even without changing their religion under the Special Marriage Act. There are thousands of couples in India who out of their free will marry outside their religion for love and companionship. It’s not only that Muslim men marry Hindu women but also many Hindu men marry Muslim women. It works both ways. Individuals marry out of their free will out of love not under conspiracy and that’s what has made India so pluralistic- people finding kindness, love and meaningful relationships beyond identities of religion, class or caste. Casting aspersions based on such politics of hatred is a low blow to democratic ethos, personal liberties and constitutional morality of the country.
In spite of the fact that the Constitution of India ensures these freedoms, why are these state governments pushing for such laws? The answer lies in the power of narrative. A narrative is sought to be created that Muslims are a threat to the honor and safety of Hindu women and by that logic, the whole Hindu community. This hysteria is whipped up to demonize the Muslim community to an extent that to create imagery that Muslims can’t co-exist peacefully with other communities. That Muslims are zealots whose political agenda is to marry now women of the Hindu community only to convert them to Islam and then increase the population of the Muslim community. This narrative though finds its roots in the thoughts of Savarkar years back which we will discuss shortly, is aggressively pushed after 2014 especially in Uttar Pradesh which went on to constitute anti-Romeo squads. These squads are essentially vigilante squads which wreck assaults and humiliation on any couples seen in public. Obviously as is the case with all vigilantes laced with state power, they don’t stop there and have targeted innocent youngsters including cousins and siblings. This squad is akin to Nazi era militia wings who take it upon themselves to protect the “culture” and women of the community.
It is not uncommon to find the Hindutva organizations like Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad being actively zealous in scouting for information on applications of inter-religious marriages and intimidating couples or their families into calling off the relationships and impending marriage (BBC News, 2019). Some seek to instigate the Hindu families into illegally detaining their daughters and falsely implicating the innocent Muslim family members into false cases of abduction of their daughters to pressurize the couple to separate. It is equally not uncommon for the Hindutva organizations to give these incidents communal tint and to orchestrate communal riots. The Muslim families are compelled to flee the villages causing displacement and unspeakable hardships to them. Threatened by these consequences, hundreds of couples either separate or are forced to run away to big cities and live in hiding and insecurity. This is also the case with inter-caste marriages which fall prey to honor killings and ghastly violence. So entrenched are the institutions of caste and patriarchy in the society that marriages outside one’s caste and out of the choice of women are seen as one union that can pose a challenge to social order rested on hierarchies.
While honor killings are nothing new to India, neither is the communal venom behind campaigns such as love jihad. Savarkar, in his Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, describes how Muslim women are to be dishonored and violated as supposed “revenge” to avenge the rapes of Hindu women, thereby justifying rape as a political weapon (Ashraf, 2016). He goes on to liken the bodies of women to fertile land which have to be captured to spread religion by increasing population of that community. This base objectification of women and portraying them as some sort of spoils of war is now also the ideological basis of the campaign of “love jihad” alleged by the Hindutva organizations. The Hindutva vigilantes are using this narrative to smear the image of young Muslim men with the support of state power. The incident of Hadiya is a case in point. Hadiya, born in a Hindu family converted to Islam out of her own will well before she met her future husband, Shafin Jahan. However, her family with the support of Hindutva organizations alleged that she was forced to convert to Islam by her husband who also may have terror links. The Kerala High Court annulled this marriage terming it as an instance of “love jihad”, following which Jahan had approached the apex court. She, a married woman, was in custody of her family and confined to one room in their house and not allowed to visit anyone, including her husband. The state jumped in to constitute a probe by National Investigation Agency to probe if there was an instance of love jihad! NIA ordinarily investigates cases of terrorism but in this instance where a Hindu woman willingly converted to Islam and thereafter married a Muslim man of her own choice propelled the state to give it a terror angle. Truth eventually prevailed and the Supreme Court squashed the high court order and set her free to live with her husband. The Supreme Court also found that there was no shred of truth in the allegations of terror links of her husband. Lately, the case of Nikita Tomar is cited to reinforce the case of “love jihad”. The charge is ironical. Shooting Tomar dead is a criminal offence punishable with even death sentence because the victim (Tomar) had thwarted the advances of the perpetrator, who happens to be a Muslim in this case. Such violence happen in plenty of cases, as in the cases of acid attacks. In a similar incident, Gulnaaz, a Muslim woman from Vaishali in Bihar was set on fire by Hindu men as she resisted advances of one of them (Khan, 2020). By the logic of the bigots, will this also be “love Jihad”? Can all acid attacks be called “love jihad”?
In many states of India, there are prevailing laws which make it extremely difficult for anyone to convert to another religion of his/her choice as prior permission of the state is required to convert. Ironically, such laws are called Freedom of Religion Acts. Madhya Pradesh government’s proposed bill is called Dharma Swatantrya (Freedom of Religion) Bill, 2020, proposes five years of rigorous imprisonment for “luring a person through fraud and forcing marriage by religious conversion” (Siddique, 2020). It is an attempt to make the earlier anti-conversion law more stringent by preventing conversion in proximity of marriage. It defies logic to have a new law to curb conversions since laws already exist to regulate conversions. These laws are envisaged to be a weapon to target the Muslims like in the case of criminalization of triple talaq and anti-cow slaughter bills. The trend to make legislations targeting vulnerable communities to perpetuate structural violence is prominent under the current ruling dispensation. This is a more insidious way to perpetuate violence and strip rights as citizens guaranteed under the Constitution to marginalized communities. More alarmingly, such laws mark a shift to an all pervading state which literally now peeks inside its own people’s houses and bedrooms, corroding the notion of liberties guaranteed under a democracy.
“Love jihad” as the Hindutva organizations term inter-faith marriages or relationship is a vicious brand of politics which is a ruse to undermine the agency of women and demonize the Muslims in this country. Hindutva has conjured this imaginary piece of fiction to strengthen the narrative that Muslims are a threat to the country by hitting the emotionally sensitive nerve of protecting honour and women of the Hindu community. Ironically it does little to further the rights of women in terms of inheritance, better healthcare, equal opportunities and livelihood of Hindu women. Incidents like Hathras continue unabated. But the politics over the bodies of women goes on relentlessly. This politics bear the markings of an illiberal state systematically dismantling democratic institutions and the Constitutional safeguards. We are hurtling towards a morbid claustrophobic talibanized society, the ruins of which are too grave to be redeemed. Let us hope we soon realize that what this country needs in these times of heightened religious polarization is more of love and not hatred – and definitely not bogus campaigns like love Jihad.