Love and hate

A controversial new law in Uttar Pradesh, ostensibly intended to hinder forcible conversion in interfaith marriages, is seen by many as a communal tactic and a threat to basic constitutional rights.

advertisement
Saffron ire: A Vishwa Hindu Mahasangh protest against ‘love jihad’ and religious conversions in New Delhi, Nov. 8

The Uttar Pradesh police, on December 2, stopped a wedding between a 24-year-old Muslim man and a 22-year-old Hindu woman in Lucknow’s Duda Colony. The ceremony was to be solemnised as per Hindu rituals and had the consent of both families. The police, who were acting on a complaint by a vigilante group, asked the couple to seek the district magistrate’s nod for their marriage. Official permission for interfaith marriages is mandatory under the new Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance 2020, promulgated on November 28 by the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government in the state.

While the couple in Lucknow was relieved to escape punitive action, others in UP have not been as lucky. Since the ordinance came into effect, police have registered five cases relating to interfaith marriages and arrested seven people. On December 6, members of the Sangh Parivar-affiliated Bajrang Dal reached the marriage registration office in Moradabad and took a Muslim man and a Hindu woman, who had come to register their marriage solemnised in July, to the police. The man and his brother were arrested on the basis of a complaint filed by the woman’s mother that her daughter had been lured into the marriage and converted. This was despite the woman asserting that her relationship was consensual. Two days later, on receiving a phone call that a Muslim man was marrying a Hindu woman after converting her, police stopped a marriage in Kushinagar and questioned the groom and the bride, both Muslims. The allegation turned out to be false and the couple got married the next day.

Instances of such vigilantism and police overzealousness are increasingly being reported since the promulgation of the contentious ordinance premised on ‘love jihad’, a conspiracy theory, peddled by radical Hindu fringe groups, about Muslim men luring Hindu women into marriage and converting them by guile or force. As Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath thundered at a rally in Jaunpur on October 31: “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.”

Justifying the ordinance, UP cabinet minister and spokesperson Sidharth Nath Singh said: “Over a hundred incidents of forceful religious conversions had been reported. There were also reports of religious conversions in the state using deceitful means. So, to make a law on this becomes an important policy matter now.” The ordinance came just two days after the Kanpur police had filed a report on an investigation into 14 cases of inter-religious relationships, which asserted that 11 of these cases were indeed instances of marriages involving deception over one partner’s religion.

Critics argue that by promulgating the ordinance, the UP government may be seen as having practically endorsed the view that interfaith marriages are a conspiracy by Muslims to convert Hindu women with the larger goal of expansion of Islam in India. Officially, the ‘love jihad’ theory finds no takers in the BJP-led Union government. In February, Union MoS for home affairs G. Kishan Reddy said in the Lok Sabha that the term ‘love jihad’ was not defined under the extant laws. No such case of ‘love jihad’ had been reported by any of the central agencies, he said.

A violation of fundamental rights

Modelled on the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018, the UP ordinance states that a marriage could be declared null and void if performed for the sole purpose of an unlawful conversion or if an unlawful conversion has been done for the sole purpose of marriage. Also, local authorities need to be given a two-month notice before an interfaith marriage, a provision ostensibly aimed at curbing ‘love jihad’. A raging debate erupted when a 21-year-old Hindu woman was shot dead in the last week of October outside her college in Ballabhgarh, allegedly by a Muslim man who had been stalking her. The woman’s family alleged that the man was pressuring her to convert to Islam and marry him. Several Hindu outfits jumped in, declaring the murder a case of ‘love jihad’.

Legal experts argue that the UP ordinance violates fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution as it disregards an individual’s right to practise a religion of their choice. “Any law that takes away bodily autonomy and decision-making from individuals doesn’t stand on the principles and values laid down by the Constitution or the international principles of human rights (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) that India is a signatory to,” says Renu Mishra, executive director of the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives, a legal advocacy and resource group. Offering a judicial perspective, she adds: “The Supreme Court, through several progressive judgments over the decades, has laid down that the right to decide and the freedom to choose one’s partner, irrespective of caste or religious identity, is a fundamental right and must be protected by the state for all individuals. Instead of implementation of the precedents laid down by the apex court, we continue to see excessive use of the policing system to suppress and even reprimand young couples.”

The ordinance also flies in the face of a November 11 verdict by the Allahabad High Court. Quashing an FIR that accused a Muslim man of abducting a Hindu woman and forcing her into marriage after conversion to Islam, the court said the two adults in question were free to choose their partners. The two-judge bench also said that the high court’s judgments in two previous cases of interfaith marriages, wherein it was observed that “conversion just for the purpose of marriage is unacceptable”, were “not good law”. The court noted that interference in a personal relationship amounted to serious encroachment upon individuals’ right to freedom of choice.

TWO SIDES OF A ROW: Protests in Bengaluru against ‘love jihad’ laws in BJP-ruled states; (top right) a demonstration in Bhopal against ‘love jihad’

“The ordinance puts freedom of choice and dignity on the backseat. It is difficult to see what objection there can be to two adults of different faiths consenting to marriage. By objecting, is Uttar Pradesh trying to encourage live-in relationships? It will need a miracle to declare this ordinance constitutionally valid,” Justice Madan Lokur, former Supreme Court judge, told India Today.

A PIL filed in the Supreme Court in early December has challenged both the UP ordinance and the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act on grounds that such laws violate the basic tenets of the Constitution. A writ petition in the Allahabad High Court has argued that the ordinance gives the police a licence to terrorise and harass interfaith couples.

To experts, the biggest strike on personal liberty is the fact that the ordinance places the burden of proving a conversion as lawful on the people who “caused” or “facilitated” it, rather than the individual in question. For instance, even if a woman who has got converted affirms that she was not coerced into it, her partner, who is deemed to have “caused” the conversion, will have to justify the step. In short, every religious conversion is presumed to be illegal unless proved otherwise.

“[By this,] we are completely ignoring the agency of women. We are suggesting that they are stupid and cannot decide right and wrong on their own,” argues Prof. Arvinder A. Ansari of the department of sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. Indu Agnihotri, former director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, a New Delhi-based autonomous research institute, cautions that turning the heat on interfaith marriages in the name of ‘love jihad’ will only encourage the targeting of women who choose to assert their independence in decision-making.

High on BJP's agenda

Soon after the UP ordinance was promulgated, several other BJP-ruled states, such as Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Haryana, promised laws against ‘love jihad’. Terming it as another ‘Beti Bachao Andolan’, MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said: “It is easy to mislead young girls with malicious intent. Later, their life becomes hell.” In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP government last year enacted a law relating to religious conversions with a specific clause on conversions surrounding marriages. The state is now mulling a separate law to curb conversions for the purpose of marriage.

‘Love jihad’ is likely to emerge as a poll plank in the forthcoming West Bengal assembly election, where the BJP is locked in a high-stakes battle with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC). Bengal, which the BJP sees as the final frontier in its eastern expansion plan, has been witnessing increasing communal polarisation over the contentious CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and NRC (National Register of Citizens). Kailash Vijayvargiya, the BJP national general secretary in charge of Bengal, has endorsed the UP ordinance, saying: “The law has been formulated [to deal with] the conspiracy behind inter-religious marriages. Love is sanatan (eternal) and effortless. It does not see religion or caste. But if someone loves and marries another person with a plan or intention to convert their religion, this law is for them.” TMC MP Nusrat Jahan, who had an interfaith marriage, counters: “Don’t make religion a political tool. Love and jihad do not go hand in hand. People come up with such issues just before polls.”

Hindu fringe groups in Bengal have been running online campaigns cautioning Hindu women against ‘getting trapped’ by Muslim men. On February 7, 2018, a 25-year-old-woman from North 24 Parganas district was shocked to find her name in a list of 100 Facebook profiles of Hindu women compiled by ‘Hindu Varta’, a group on the social networking site. A post by the group declared these women as victims of ‘love jihad’ and exhorted “all Hindu tigers to find the men listed and hunt them [down]”. Soon, the woman and her Muslim partner started receiving death threats. It was only after they filed a complaint with the police cyber cell that the offensive post was deleted.

‘Love jihad’ has also infiltrated the political discourse in Assam, another state headed for assembly elections in 2021. Muslims, who form 35 per cent of the state’s population, are widely perceived as Bangladeshi infiltrators. Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state’s finance minister, said in October: “Many Muslim boys create Facebook accounts with Hindu names and post their pictures at temples. After marrying such a boy, the girl discovers he is not from the same religion. This is a not a bona fide marriage but a breach of trust.” A month later, Sarma announced that the Assam government was formulating a marriage law under which the bride and the groom will have to disclose their religion and income in official documents a month before their wedding.

Political observers and election strategists don’t see ‘love jihad’ through the prism of electoral politics alone but also as part of an ideological outreach. “Issues such as ‘love jihad’ can help a party with some marginal increase in its vote share. Such divisive issues consolidate votes on both sides of the divide, benefitting rival political groups as well,” says Pradeep Gupta, chairman and managing director of Axis My India, a poll prediction agency.

A divided society

It’s not difficult to understand why the BJP sees ‘love jihad’ as a fertile electoral plank. Indian society has traditionally been hostile to interfaith marriages. A 2013 study, using data from the 2005 India Human Development Survey conducted by the University of Maryland and the National Council of Applied Economic Research, found that only 2.21 per cent of women in the 15-49 age group had married outside their religion. Among Hindus, only 1.5 per cent women married outside their religion, indicative of the aversion to interfaith marriages. A 2016 survey, titled ‘Social Attitudes Research for India’, conducted by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), University of Pennsylvania, in Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan found most respondents opposed to inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, and even favouring a law banning such alliances.

“Close family and kinship bonds are interwoven in the fabric of Indian society. The closeness of these bonds rests on marriage practices that subjugate individual preferences to corporate family needs and ideologies. Thus, the idea of love itself is threatening, let alone interfaith love marriages. Perhaps that is the reason ‘love jihad’ has gained so much attention,” says Sonalde Desai, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland.

Those clamouring for ‘love jihad’ laws cite a clutch of incidents to back their claims. In May 2019, Imran Bhati, a married Muslim man with three children from Rajasthan, allegedly married a Hindu woman by introducing himself as ‘Kabeer Sharma’ and even took Rs 10 lakh as dowry. He then went missing with his wife. He was arrested a month later in Mumbai after the woman’s parents filed a police complaint. In August 2014, the Jharkhand police arrested Ranjit Kumar Kohli, alias Raqibul Hasan Khan, for allegedly deceiving national shooter Tara Shahdeo into marriage and forcing her to convert to Islam. According to the FIR, Shahdeo was tortured into accepting her husband’s religion. Kohli claimed he was born Hindu and had embraced Islam, but denied forcing Shahdeo to convert.

Sunil Raghav, president of the Bulandshahr unit of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a Hindutva youth organisation, claims he is familiar with some 4,000 cases of deceitful conversions and marriages in the district in the past 7-8 years. “We are not against love or interfaith marriages. We are against faking identities or using marriage as a ploy to convert Hindu women. This is a big conspiracy,” says Raghav.

A UP IPS officer doesn’t see any larger conspiracy behind interfaith marriages but claims that some people fake identities to “land a trophy girlfriend”. “For some Muslim men, particularly from the lower economic strata, it’s an aspirational or macho thing to be in a relationship with a Hindu woman. Some do it for human trafficking too. After marriage, some coerce the girl to convert but it’s not being done as some grand conspiracy to increase the population of Muslims,” says the officer, on condition of anonymity.

Politics of ‘love jihad’

The term ‘love jihad’ first surfaced in Gujarat in 2007 when Bajrang Dal leaders announced a mission to ‘rescue’ Hindu women in relationship with Muslims. In 2009, it sprung up in Kerala and Karnataka. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a fringe group in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district, claimed 30,000 women had fallen victim to ‘love jihad’. Four years on, love jihad became a political slogan in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots in UP, which were allegedly sparked off by the molestation of a Jat woman by a Muslim. In 2014, the term found its way into the BJP mainstream when magazines Organiser and Panchjanya, published by the party’s ideological fountainhead, carried cover stories on ‘love jihad’. Since then, ‘love jihad’ has been a part of most BJP poll campaigns.

But it was with the 2016 Hadiya case from Kerala that ‘love jihad’ made national headlines. The 24-year-old woman, born as Akhila to a Hindu couple in Kerala, had converted to Islam and married a Muslim against her family’s wishes. In 2017, the Kerala High Court annulled the marriage, terming it a case of ‘love jihad’, and handed Hadiya’s custody to her parents. Hadiya’s husband Shafin Jahan challenged the order in the Supreme Court, which set aside the high court order in 2018 and ruled that Hadiya was free to live with her husband. Later that year, on the apex court’s insistence, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) scrutinised 11 cases from a list of 89 interfaith marriages in Kerala and found no evidence of ‘love jihad’.

This, though, wasn’t the first instance of official scrutiny debunking ‘love jihad’. In 2012, then Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy said that 2,667 women from the state had converted to Islam since 2006, but no evidence of coercion had been found. According to a 2009 Karnataka police investigation, in 229 cases (reported since 2005) of women going missing and later being found as having married interfaith, religious conversions had taken place in only 63. A Delhi government study shows that of the 19,250 marriages registered between January and September 2019 in the state, only 589 were interfaith.

“There is no data to support claims [of ‘love jihad’]. This fake narrative is being rationalised by people in high positions with the political motive of winning votes by dividing society along communal lines,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based advocacy group Centre for Social Research (CSR).

Concurs Jamia’s Prof. Ansari: “The issue is being raised to deflect attention from more pressing matters, such as the economic downturn, unemployment and farmers’ crisis.”

However, wary of rising Hindu nationalism across the country, opposition parties and leaders have shied away from challenging the BJP on its ‘love jihad’ campaign. Among the exceptions is Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, who said: “‘Love jihad’ is a term concocted by the BJP to divide the nation and disturb communal harmony. Marriage is a matter of personal liberty, and bringing in a law to curb it is completely unconstitutional and won’t stand in any court of law. Jihad has no place in love.”

Rise of vigilantism

Despite the lack of credible evidence of ‘love jihad’, vigilante groups have been indulging in unauthorised interference in interfaith marriages by consenting adults. They keep an eye on social media profiles, temples and marriage registrar offices and use all possible pressure tactics to prevent interfaith marriages. In May this year, Punjab BJP secretary Sukhpal Singh Sra was arrested for allegedly pelting stones at an interfaith couple’s home in Bathinda. Recently, the video of a young Hindu girl, who had apparently gone to meet her Muslim boyfriend, being heckled and slapped by BJP Mahila Morcha members went viral.

Hindi Vishwa, the mouthpiece of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), dedicated its September 16-30 issue to ‘love jihad’, chronicling 147 media reports on the issue and primarily relying on sources propagating Hindu right-wing politics. “‘Love jihad’ is a calculated agenda of invasion on the demographics,” said Alok Kumar, VHP central working president, at the launch of the issue.

It’s a view echoed by Apurba Adhikary, who heads a forum to protect the Satras, or Vaishnavite monasteries, in Assam from land grabbing by infiltrators from Bangladesh. “Many Muslim men of immigrant origin are trapping Hindu women in relationships by faking identities on social media. The nexus of human trafficking is also a factor,” says Adhikary, whose 13-year-old niece was kidnapped by Muslims of immigrant origin in 2003 and rescued by the police after 23 days. “We were forced to relocate the monastery as even the administration failed to provide us protection, thanks to vote-bank politics,” he adds.

Social scientists, however, disagree with the assertion that Muslim men systematically assume fake identities on social media to lure Hindu women. “I have found no evidence of men of any particular religious group concealing identities to target women of another faith as part of a larger conspiracy to coerce them into conversion later on. Criminals do use social media for human trafficking, but this has nothing to do with religion or conversion,” says CSR’s Ranjana Kumari, who is also a member of both Facebook’s Global Safety Advisory Board and Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council.

Over time, the ‘love jihad’ narrative has begun to impact a wide section of society. In November, the Netflix series A Suitable Boy, based on a novel by Vikram Seth, ran into controversy for a scene showing its Hindu female protagonist kissing a Muslim man. A member of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) filed a police complaint in Madhya Pradesh against two Netflix officials and demanded an apology for the scene that he claimed “promoted love jihad”. In October, a Tanishq jewellery advertisement featuring an interfaith couple sparked such outrage that it was withdrawn.

Needed: A law that protects

As the threat of persecution in the name of ‘love jihad’ rises, existing laws related to interfaith marriages have failed to provide effective legal recourse to those wishing to marry outside their religion. Many observers feel religious conversion often takes place just before a wedding because the couple in question prefers to have a same-religion wedding instead of an interfaith marriage through the Special Marriage Act, 1954. Under this Act, a prospective groom and bride must give a 30-day notice to the marriage office, and a copy of it should be displayed at the office. The norm is intended at ensuring transparency and enabling individuals to file legitimate objections, such as an existing spouse. The notice must include personal details of the groom and bride, such as name, photograph, date of birth, age, occupation, parents’ names, address and phone number.

‘Love jihad’ vigilantes have been using the information in such public notices to track down and threaten interfaith couples into backing out of marriage. For instance, in June-July this year, the details of some 120 interfaith couples in Kerala were leaked on social media by vigilante groups. The Kerala government has now stopped uploading interfaith marriage applications online. Other states haven’t exercised such caution. “In Maharashtra, anyone can access details of interfaith couples from government websites, leaving them vulnerable to vigilante groups,” says Asif Iqbal who, with his wife Ranu Kulshrestha, founded Dhanak of Humanity, a support group for interfaith couples in India.

In 2018, a Law Commission of India report observed that procedural hiccups in the Special Marriage Act leave interfaith couples with little choice but for one of them to convert to the other’s religion so as to ensure a smooth same-religion marriage, sans the need for issuing notices, etc. The commission recommended that either the notice period required for interfaith marriages be scrapped or such couples be provided adequate police security.

In September this year, following a petition by a law student from Kerala challenging the Special Marriage Act, the Supreme Court agreed to examine whether the publication of the personal details of prospective grooms and brides violated their right to privacy. “When two consenting adults decide to marry, it is terribly unconstitutional to call for objections from the public. Such provisions are absent even in traditional personal laws. As such, a kind of discrimination is meted out in the case of those who opt for interfaith marriages under the Special Marriage Act,” says Kaleeswaram Raj, the Supreme Court advocate representing the petitioner.

The Special Marriage Act has also been challenged in the Delhi High Court by Dhanak of Humanity. “The problem of ‘love jihad’ is a ramification rooted in this Act. The laws aren’t inadequate but the people implementing them are part of the same social milieu,” says advocate Utkarsh Singh, who filed the petition on behalf of Dhanak of Humanity.

Interestingly, the UP ordinance applies only to interfaith marriages, solemnised under the Special Marriage Act, wherein either the groom or the bride seeks to convert to marry as per personal laws. This distinction has earned the ordinance support from some corners, such as author Chetan Bhagat. “The ‘love jihad’ law does not stop inter-religion marriages. It simply casts a responsibility on the state to check the bona fides of love by seeking notice and information. Is it desirable? Of course, yes. In fact, it is the duty of the state,” tweeted Bhagat.

As the ‘love jihad’ controversy rages on, Justice Lokur cautions against police over-activism in complaints of alleged forced conversions. “The police have been overzealous in misunderstanding the law, and therein lies the problem. What the future holds, particularly in UP, only time will tell, but it doesn’t look good at all,” he says.

The developments in UP since the promulgation of the ordinance somewhat put the intent of the state government and the enforcement agencies under a cloud. The arrest of two Muslim men in Moradabad on December 6 sharply contrasted with what happened in Bareilly a day before, when the police refused to entertain a Muslim man’s complaint that his daughter had married a Hindu after conversion. The police went by the woman’s testimony that she got married in September before the ordinance had come into effect. The police did the right thing in this case, but instances of bias and misuse of power abound. With religious conversion laws like the one in UP certain to complicate, and potentially even discourage, interfaith marriages, it is imperative that law enforcement officers rise above religious prejudice and act with fairness and integrity on every complaint.

with Ashish Misra, Romita Datta, Rohit Parihar, Rahul Noronha and Amitabh Srivastava