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Two Love Stories Tell Judges Why Religion Shouldn’t Limit Marriage

Ajaz Ashraf |
Indian judiciary must rescind laws that bar people from marrying into social groups other than their own, as Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand laws do.
love jihad

Weeks will likely pass before the Supreme Court will even begin to hear the challenges to the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020 and the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018. These two laws have been designed to make it nearly impossible for couples belonging to different faiths to marry and, thereby, counter the alleged phenomenon of love jihad, a term Hindu Right invokes to claim that Muslim men marry Hindu women for the purpose of converting them to Islam.

The ordinance has already torn couples apart in Uttar Pradesh. In Lucknow, the police stalled an interfaith marriage even though it had the consent of the couple’s families and did not involve conversion. The two laws will undoubtedly strike terror among those who are in interfaith relationships and plan to marry. Will they await the Supreme Court verdict on the constitutionality of the two laws before calling off their relationships? Or will they take on a heartless state machinery insistent on smothering their love?

These couples would, alternatively, mull travelling to the States which do not have laws regulating interfaith marital ties, get married and have them registered there. Yet a question will haunt them on their return: Could a family court declare their marriages void in case these are deemed to have been done for the “sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice versa,” as section 6 of the Uttar Pradesh ordinance states?

Such questions often arose in other countries as well, in an era when the state was armed with the power to decide who could love and marry whom. The mission then was to perpetuate the segregation of races. Yet couples drew from their love the dare to challenge the laws proscribing interracial marriages. Race is to those countries what religion is to India. As interfaith couples in Uttar Pradesh discover the state’s contempt for their love, here are two stories the Supreme Court judges must read to fathom why laws regulating or proscribing interfaith marriage will undermine the individual’s right to choose, suppress the freedom of conscience, and script tragedies, as often happened with interracial couples compelled to live apart.

Richard and Mildred Loving: Love as Liberty

Tucked away in Central Point of Caroline County, in the State of Virginia, United States, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter lived a life in the 1950s that none thought would trigger the annulling of laws proscribing interracial marriage. Richard was, according to a media account, an ordinary blond, who loved music and drag racing, and earned a living by building houses. Richard was 24 years old when he began to date Mildred, a willowy 18-year-old of African-Cherokee descent, her skin coffee-coloured. Their families knew each other well, not unusual for Central Point, which was one of those rare places in Virginia where races mingled socially.

Their life took a turn when Mildred disclosed to Richard that she was pregnant. He offered to marry Mildred, even though acutely aware that his love for her would run against the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, 1924, which was the last updated version of the law, first adopted in 1691, to regulate interracial marriage. Revised many times over two centuries, the 1924 Act not only prohibited interracial marriage, but also defined who could legally claim to be a white. “For the purpose of this Act, the term ‘white person’ shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian,” the law said.

Under the Act, Mildred was deemed a “coloured person”—and could not, therefore, marry Richard. So Richard and Mildred drove 90 miles to Washington D.C, where interracial marriage was not banned. After getting married there on 2 June 1958, they returned to Central Point, blissfully unaware that the 1924 Racial Integrity Act also prohibited interracial couples, including those who had returned to Virginia after marrying outside the State, from cohabiting.

One July night, around 2 am, Sheriff Garnett Brooks and two of his deputies broke into the Lovings’ home. Waving a flashlight and an arrest warrant, Brooks asked Richard the identity of the woman he was sleeping with. In an account given to a journalist years later, Mildred said she told the Sheriff that she was Richard’s wife. “Not here, you’re not,” Brooks shot back. They were dumped into the local prison the same night.

Richard was bailed out the following day. Mildred languished in a squalid cell for a few more days. About her stay in prison, she told an interviewer: “One afternoon this inmate had been out, on the outside working, and when the sheriff brought him back in, he said, ‘I should let you go in here with her tonight.’ Scared me to death.” Laws segregating communities do turn the chauvinist beastly. Mildred was subsequently delivered in the care of her father.

On 19 October, the circuit court of Caroline County indicted Richard and Mildred for violating the Racial Integrity Act. They pleaded not guilty, but then opted for plea bargaining, which encourages a person to accept his or her guilt in return for a lighter punishment. Under the 1924 Act, they could have been sentenced to five years in prison. The plea bargaining had Judge Leon M Bazile give them a one-year suspended sentence.

There was a catch, though. Richard and Mildred were to leave Virginia and never return together to the State for a period of 25 years. They shifted to Washington DC, with a cousin of Mildred, and always travelled separately to Central Point. Mildred delivered two of her three children in Central Point, the forced separation from them as well as from their land and relatives a source of perpetual torment for them.

In 1963, when a vehicle hit her son, Mildred realised “she had to get out of there [Washington].” In that year, the United States was engaged in a fierce debate over the Civil Rights Act. Inspired, Mildred wrote a letter to then Attorney General Robert F Kennedy, who referred the Lovings to the American Civil Liberties Union. Their case was handed over to Bernard S Cohen and Philip J Hirschkop, both recent entrants into the legal fraternity. Since the sentence against the Lovings had been suspended and not carried out, Cohen filed a motion for reopening the case.

On 22 January 1965, Judge Bazile refused to vacate the conviction. Defending Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, Bazile said, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. But for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

Hirschkop was to later recall that Blaize’s racist logic did his clients a big “favour”, as it trained the spotlight on their plight in an America embracing change. Hirschkop went in appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which too, on 7 March 1966, reaffirmed the anti-miscegenation laws. Hirschkop’s next stop was the US Supreme Court.

By then, the Lovings case had truly hooked the nation. Civil society groups filed amicus briefs. The Lovings turned down the invitation of lawyers, Cohen and Hirschkop, to attend the court hearings. The most dramatic moment during the arguments came when Cohen told the justices, “No matter how we articulate this…no one can articulate it better than Richard Loving when he said to me, ‘Mr Cohen, tell the Court I love my wife and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.”

On 12 June 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favour of the Lovings and struck down the 1924 Act as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants citizenship to all those born in the US and guarantees them equal protection under the law. Chief Justice Earl Warren described marriage as “one of the ‘basic civil rights of man’, fundamental to our very existence and survival… To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications…is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”

The Supreme Court’s ruling in the aptly named Loving vs Virginia led to the annulment of laws banning interracial marriage in 16 other States. On that day, Mildred told a press conference, “I feel free now.” In 1992, years after Richard died in a road accident in 1975, Mildred said, “What happened, we really didn’t intend for it to happen. What we wanted, we wanted to come home.”

Like Richard and Mildred, the inter-faith couples in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand would want to tell the Supreme Court: ‘What we want, we want to live together.’

Not all love stories succeed in vaulting over the wall of separation malevolently constructed by the state. Some end tragically, as it did for August Landmesser and Irma Eckler.

August and Irma: Love as Rebellion

August Landmesser was recovered and reclaimed for history accidentally. In 1991, Die Zeit, a German newspaper, published a photograph showing a gathering of workers, on 13 June 1936, at a shipyard in Hamburg. They were there to witness the launch of a navy training ship, Horst Wessel, their photo clicked at the time they were giving the Nazi salute, their arms raised. Hitler was said to have been at the launch.

What made this photograph exceptional was the presence of a solitary worker who did not join his mates in giving the Nazi salute. He stood with his arms crossed, squinting and grimacing. A few years later, the rebel was identified as August Landmesser by his daughter Irene Eckler, who wrote a book that narrates how her family was torn apart because of the ban on interracial marriage.

After Irene’s identification of her father, another family claimed that the person who refused to give the Nazi salute was Gustav Wergert. The family produced his employment certificate to show he was employed at the Hamburg shipyard in 1936. Wergert was a devout Christian. Since the Nazi salute was often accompanied with the chant of Hail Hitler, an honour Gustav believed ought to be only reserved for God, he chose to cross his arms.

In 2011, this photograph went viral after it was posted on a blog, seeking relief for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in that year. Regardless of the real identity of the silent rebel, the photo helped resurrect the heroic love story of August Landmesser.

Born in 1910, August is said to have joined the Nazi party in 1931, largely because he thought it would brighten his prospect to secure employment. But then he met Irma Eckler, fell in love with her, and got engaged to her. This led to his expulsion from the Nazi Party. Undeterred, he registered in Hamburg, in August 1935, to get married to Irma. A month later, however, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, forbidding marriage and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans. To them, on 29 October, a daughter was born. They named her Ingrid.

Unwilling to abandon Irma even as Germany took to persecuting the Jews, he tried, in 1937, to flee to Denmark with his family. They were nabbed. Since Irma was pregnant again, August was charged for violating the Nuremberg Laws and dishonouring the German race. The couple took the plea that they were uncertain whether Irma was Jewish as she had been baptised in the Protestant Church after her mother remarried. Acquitted on account of lack of evidence, August was warned that a harsher punishment would be meted to him in case he continued to live with Irma.

Two months later, in July 1938, they were arrested again—for publicly living together. August was packed off to a concentration camp for two and a half years. On his release in 1941, he took up employment with a haulage company and was drafted into a penal battalion. He was deployed to Croatia, where he died in 1944. Irma was whisked away to a concentration camp, where she delivered her second daughter, Irene. Both her daughters were placed under foster care. Irma is said to have perished in the Bernburg Euthanasia Camp in 1942.

There are lessons for India and the judiciary to draw from the two love stories. The trials and tribulations of Richard and Mildred underscore the importance of judicial intervention to rescind laws barring individuals from different social groups to marry each other. To deny humans the right to choose their partner is to also deny them liberty. In contrast to America turning its back to laws on segregation, India under the Bharatiya Janata Party is insistent on walking backwards into history, conceiving laws to dissuade men and women of different faiths to marry, as the Nazi Germany did. This march back into time would, as the story of August and Irma shows, lead to traumatic separations, deaths, and an assault on humanity. There can be no two better stories for convincing the judges why they should not let religion and conversion circumscribe love and marriage.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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