There is no lack of clarity on why Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s government ran a proactive campaign in Uttar Pradesh about the so-called love jihad. It was an effort to control Hindu women, criminalise Muslim men, and regulate social interactions between Hindus and Muslims.
Yet, it is not completely clear what those who are campaigning against love jihad are resisting it. Indeed they are motivated by the desire to demonstrate that Muslims are not part of any conspiracy to lure Hindu women and make them convert to Islam. They also want to expose the false cases related to “love jihad” that the state government is filing.
Still, those resisting the love jihad campaign have not debated the heart of the matter, which happens to be the attempt to criminalise inter-religious love and marriages. One could argue that there is nothing to “debate” here since love and by-choice marriages pertain to individual decisions. But is an individual’s choice sufficient to resist prejudices on either side of the religious divide?
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar had argued that co-dining and intercaste marriages are the only way to “annihilate caste”. So, can common neighbourhoods and inter-religious marriage have the same effect on religious prejudices as co-dining and intercaste marriages? The difference is that the Dalits seek to annihilate caste identities, while the minorities only wish to eliminate religious prejudices, not their distinct identity.
Conversely, Hindus, Muslims, and members of other faiths are well within their rights to preserve their distinct identities. This naturally bars any campaign that actively promotes inter-dining and inter-religious marriages. Therefore, in effect, the fight against caste-based discrimination by promoting intercaste marriages (as a countervailing force to caste prejudice) cannot be superimposed on measures to promote inter-religious harmony.
Given the prevailing religious polarisation, growing threat perception among religious minorities, and falling standards of public debates, we must distinguish the legitimate concerns for recognition raised by the minorities, and others, from the calls to fuel prejudice. In other words, do the majority of Hindus and Muslims resist inter-religious marriages out of an anxious desire to preserve the distinctness of their identities? Or is it that they harbour deep-seated prejudices against each other which comes in the way of intermarrying?
Members of different faiths would argue that religious texts and practices do not permit such marriages, even though religious conversion offers a way out. To be clear, while caste relations are vertical, and prejudice and discrimination are integral to caste structures, lateral religious identities are not integrally exclusivist.
Hence, prohibiting inter-religious marriages is more about recognition than prejudice. A Hindu rejecting an alliance with a Muslim is not the same as a Brahmin refusing to marry a Dalit. The latter attempts to destabilise the identities as they exist, while the former does not have the same effect. The question arises, is not deconstructing larger religious identities a necessary precondition to resisting cultural polarisation? Even religious identities do not exist as neat blocks, but, if tightly segregated from each other, they cannot coexist in harmony. This is why polarisation is difficult to achieve in those societies where identities are more porous and plural. For example, in Kerala and West Bengal, Hindus and Muslims celebrate the same festivals, share languages, food habits, and yet emphasise their distinct religious identities.
One could argue, the choices of individuals are critical to distinguishing recognition from prejudice. For the sake of recognition, individual choice needs to be proactively supported. Now, did the campaign against “love jihad” actively support by-choice inter-religious marriages? Can we not argue that to convert or not, even after marriage, is an individual’s choice?
Can we separate choices from community control and force? This question arose in the debate about the veil worn by women as well. Being veiled marks culture, not compulsion, so long as women opt for it. That said, we still need to mark where hegemony ends and choice begins. In the same way, are communitarian consequences visible, or do they operate in unsaid ways?
An active campaign against wearing the veil could imply prejudice against a legitimate religious practice. Similarly, a pro-active campaign that pushes for inter-religious marriage would come across as an anti-religion or irreligious, not a fair strategy to promote inter-religious harmony.
Communal harmony, caste exclusion, and gendered discrimination have a close connection in India. We cannot achieve one without fixing the other two. We find that our public debates about love jihad get interlocked with the caste and gender question, and the result is prolonged stalemates. Individual choice cannot provide an easy route out of this labyrinth, because whether people are freely making choices or not is not easy to identify.
Further, individual choices can become templates for structural discrimination. For example, we used to see sex work as sexual exploitation, but now we view it as a legitimate professional choice. Attempts to destigmatise and decriminalise sex work have made it difficult to point to the structural nature of how such conditions are produced.
In this vein, there is a need for a campaign for inter-religious marriages as a positive cause in India. It must become a way to fight both religious polarisation and gender discrimination. Struggles against caste-based exclusions and for inter-religious marriages also need to combine. The majoritarian impasse unwittingly wedges open complex and sensitive social practices. It makes public debates on these practices possible and paves a new default path to democratisation.
Those who oppose majoritarianism cannot have the same assumptions as those who promote majoritarianism. They must be able to tell recognition from prejudice. They will have to alter their assumptions and practices radically: Questioning majoritarianism is about raising questions about ourselves and our identities as much as it raises questions about others.
The author is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. The views are personal.