Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath government’s Cabinet has cleared a draft ordinance to tackle the “menace of love jihad”, and it has caught the Uttarakhand state government on the wrong foot. A scheme to promote inter-caste and interfaith marriages, which provides a cash incentive of Rs.50,000 for couples who marry outside their faith or caste, has come to light now though it has existed for years. The same scheme exists in Uttar Pradesh as well.
When Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000, the scheme was adopted by the new state as well. A District Social Welfare Officer from Tehri Garhwal recently issued a press release publicising the scheme, leaving the Trivendra Singh Rawat government—which has aligned itself closely to Adityanath’s strident Hindutva ideology and plans to cancel the scheme—feeling “embarrassed”. The state, which is BJP-ruled, and Himachal Pradesh too, have laws against religious conversion including conversion for marriage.
The Rawat government has ordered an enquiry into the advertisement, but inter-faith couples living in the state are upset. A retired army officer who lives in Uttarakhand, and whose wife is a Muslim, vents his ire, “The way Rawat has handled this incident, one would think it is a crime to marry someone from another religion. After having served my country for thirty years, I see this as a great insult,” he says.
A grey-haired former schoolteacher, married to a Muslim businessman for thirty years, is equally incensed. “In my experience, marriages are based on trust and equality. This stringent law [in Uttar Pradesh] with non-bailable provisions seems like an attempt to falsify the collective sentiments of those families whose members married outside their faith,” she says.
The new law is extremely harsh indeed and like many BJP-ruled states, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and possibly Assam, too, are considering introducing such a law. In the Uttar Pradesh ordinance, conversion “for the sake of marriage” will need prior permission of the district magistrate two months before the marriage date. The onus to prove that the conversion is not through forceful or fraudulent means is on the one proposing to convert. Else, the penalty is six months to three years in prison and a minimum Rs.10,000 fine. The law is very similar to the one in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.
Those found guilty of conversion through “misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement, or by any fraudulent means” face a non-bailable warrant according to the Uttar Pradesh government’s ordinance, and they could be imprisoned for five years and fined at least Rs.15,000. If the woman is a minor at the time of marriage or belongs to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, then the jail term goes up to 10 years and the minimum fine, Rs.25,000. As for the BJP’s pet bogey, “mass conversion”, the punishment for it has been fixed at three to 10 years and the fine Rs.50,000, which is to be imposed on organisations found guilty.
The former schoolteacher from Uttarakhand, whose father was a mahant or temple priest, is also incensed by the way the narrative around interfaith marriage is being twisted. She recollects how in the past, religious organisations had tried to dissuade her from marrying a Muslim man, “but in a polite and tactful manner,” she says—there was none of the “horrendous anti-Muslim propaganda that we are being bombarded with today.”
Such are the feelings among interfaith couples even outside Uttarakhand. They express their anger, but do not wish to be identified, from fear that their children might be trolled on social media. A university professor married to a Muslim who lives in the Capital is horrified by the underhand tirades she hears every night against Muslims, even on leading television channels. She and her husband began their careers as television journalists, so they find the “propaganda” about so-called love jihad “extremely distasteful and very far from the truth”, she says. Her husband’s family members are mostly professionals, his father was in the Indian Administrative Service. “Therefore, he [the husband], also remembers growing up in a very secular environment,” she says.
Things were different in this professor’s parental family, though. “My father was an active member of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and he would launch on an anti-Muslim diatribe over breakfast every morning. But even he sounds sophisticated considering the terms being used against the minority community today,” she says. When her father learnt she was in love with a Muslim man and determined to marry him, he was in “complete shock”. “He did not speak to me for two years. I had to seek the intervention of LK Advani ji, who was the deputy prime minister, because I was insistent that he [her father] attends my wedding,” she says.
The couple’s teenage daughter has been exposed to both religions while she grew up. The retired professor has taught her the basics of Islam and Hinduism. The family celebrates all festivals, including Durga Puja, for she is a Bengali. “Durga Puja is celebrated by my entire family, including my in-laws,” she says, adding, “I also observe a few days of fasting during Ramzan—but no attempt was ever made to convert me.” But now she is fearful for her daughter and says she would prefer if the youngster went abroad to study and even settled overseas.
There are not many options for interfaith couples who are not well-off, though. A Hindu youngster married to a Muslim woman believes the future of interfaith marriages such as theirs is bleak. “My wife visits the temple with me and lives like any Hindu woman. [However] we do not encourage her family members to visit, because this only creates feeling of hostility,” he says.
Political commentator SMA Kazmi believes “love jihad” is a continuation of the government policy to demonise Muslims as a community. “Elections in Uttar Pradesh [and Uttarakhand] are just two years away. The Ram mandir issue is no longer a vote-catcher. Unemployment, rising crimes and inflation have left millions destitute. Love jihad is an ideal weapon to whip up communal passions and further divide the two communities, thereby winning the Hindu vote,” he says. After all, for the average Hindu, the fear of “sensuous Muslim men” luring “gullible Hindu girls” is a highly emotive issue.
The man on the street has come to believe that the “honour” of Hindu women is under threat from Muslim men. They have been convinced by repeated propaganda that Hindu women are being wooed to make them followers of Islam. Personal honour has been juxtaposed with a “threat” to Hinduism. And most political parties are silent on the new and proposed laws, which infringe on individual personal freedoms.
The whole idea of love jihad rests on weak foundations. A Special Investigative Team was set up by the Uttar Pradesh government to examine 11 so-called cases of “love jihad” in Kanpur. In most cases, the Hindu women refused to entertain the notion that there was “love jihad” involved in their marriages. In three cases, the men had allegedly concealed their identity before getting married. “It seems extraordinary that the state government is bringing in an ordinance which will affect the lives of crores of people because of a mere three cases,” Kazmi says.
Not just this. Last year, a Union minister had assured Parliament that the country’s premier investigative agencies had not come across a single case of love jihad. Sidharth Nath Singh, a cabinet minister in the Uttar Pradesh government, insists such a law is necessary because of a large numbers of “religious conversions”.
According to former DIG Uttar Pradesh Police VN Rai, the handful of interfaith couples who exist today cannot overcome the narratives of distrust and animosity that has fostered between Hindu and Muslim communities. “There is a sizeable body of literature that shows their mutual suspicion and distrust and this continues,” he says. But Dr Ranjana Kumari, who heads the Centre for Social Research, says, “Where there is love, there is no need for jihad.” She finds the new laws “politically-motivated, anti-social, sexist and patriarchal”.
It is ironical that state governments are bringing in ordinances and laws to tackle something imaginary created by the Sangh Parivar. A term that has no legal recognition has become the source of a law. The Sangh spin seems to have mesmerised the wheels of power so that very few raise their voice against an oxymoron with little connection to lived experiences.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.