By: Charu Gupta
“Love jihad” — a term floated by some Hindu organisations — has got firmly fixed on the agenda of the RSS and its rightwing affiliates like the Dharma Jagran Manch, even though the Uttar Pradesh unit of the BJP has formally dropped the phrase from its political resolutions. The last month has witnessed an aggressive, systematic campaign around “love jihad”, and in the coming days there are plans to hold continuous “awareness” rallies in UP against this alleged movement to forcefully convert vulnerable Hindu women to Islam through trickery and marriage. Portentously, this present movement has an uncanny resemblance in its idiom, language and symbols to an “abduction” and conversion campaign launched by the Arya Samaj and other Hindu revivalist bodies in the 1920s in UP, to draw sharper lines between Hindus and Muslims. This historical dimension brings out in sharp relief the orchestrated and fabricated nature of love jihad.
Romance, love and marriages, particularly those cutting across caste and religious boundaries, have always implicitly challenged certain customs and norms, and aroused deep passions. Simultaneously, religious conversions have traditionally been, and continue to be, one of the common expedients of those on the margins of Hinduism to reject hierarchies and reconfigure social boundaries. The inter-meshing of romance, marriage and conversions has often produced increasing worries, deeply politicised representations and everyday violence, framed around the bodies of women. When Hindu assertion reaches new heights, as happened in UP in the 1920s, and again is happening in the present scenario, the Hindu woman’s body particularly becomes a marker to enthrone communal boundaries in ways more aggressive than before.
The 1920s in UP witnessed a flurry of orchestrated propaganda campaigns and popular inflammatory and demagogic appeals by a section of Hindu publicists against “abductions” and conversions of Hindu women by Muslim goondas, ranging from allegations of rape, abduction and elopement, to luring, conversion, love and forced marriages, although the term “love jihad” was not used at the time. Drawing on diverse sources like newspapers, pamphlets, meetings, handbills, posters, novels, myths, rumours and gossip, the campaign was able to operate in a public domain, and to monopolise the field of everyday representation. Pamphlets with provocative titles like “Hindu Auraton ki Loot”, which denounced Muslim propaganda for proselytising female preys, and “Hindu Striyon ki Loot ke Karan”, an Arya Samajist tract showing how to save “our” ladies from becoming Muslim, appeared at this time. The love jihad campaign of today, too, is using similar tropes.
The tales of the 1920s and of 2014 have certain common strains. Both campaigns are critically tied to a number-crunching politics and claims of Hindu homogeneity. In 1924, a pamphlet titled Humara Bhishan Haas, published from Kanpur, constructed a picture of the terrible calamity of declining Hindu numbers due to increasing conversions of Hindu women to Islam. It claimed that a number of Aryan women were entering the homes of yavanas and mlecchas, reading nikah with them, producing gaubhakshak children, and increasing Muslim numbers. Hindu organisations of today, too, have claimed, without any evidence, that forced conversions of Hindu women in the name of love are part of an international conspiracy to increase the Muslim population. The issues at stake here are not only to construct a picture of a numerical threat from Muslims but also to lament the supposed decline in the number of Hindus and mourn the potential loss of child-bearing Hindu wombs.
Campaigns like this are also predicated on exclusionary principles, which survive through constant and repetitive references to the aggressive and libidinal energies of the Muslim male, creating a common “enemy other”. They underwrite an exclusivist grammar of “difference” in the intimate regimes of love and marriage. Simultaneously, images of the passive, victimised Hindu women at the hand of inscrutable Muslims silence and erase female subjectivity and desire. Any possibility of women exercising their legitimate right to love, choice and conversion is marginalised. In June 1924, in Meerut, handbills and meetings claimed that various Hindu women were being lured and their pure bodies being violated by lustful and sexually charged Muslim men. The present campaign too, while focussing its anger on the Muslims, derives its emotional impact from the victim. It is impossible for Hindu groups to conceive that a Hindu woman can voluntarily elope or convert. While each case of violence against women, structured by larger patriarchal structures, whether within or outside a community, has to be trenchantly condemned, in this case every romance, love, elopement and marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man is also rewritten by Hindu organisations as forcible conversion. There appears to be a consensus among Hindu groups against any exercise by women to convert as individuals, sans familial and community approval. Perhaps it might be better to see these women not so much as “vulnerable victims”, but as “risk-taking subjects”.
It is also assumed that the mere act of marrying and staying with a Muslim ensures that the woman is leading an unhappy and dreadful life. Fears of elopements and conversions also show the need felt not so much to protect the “Hindu kanya”, but to facilitate the domination of disciplinary regimes over a woman’s actions and choices. Such actions by women produce daily policing and everyday violence along the alliance model of sexuality, where, through the arrangement of marriages, relations and boundaries of religion are policed. Invocations and related concerns with Hindu female purity allow Hindu male virility and prowess to reassert itself.
As in the 1920s, today again conversions of Hindu women are represented as a general phenomenon. Different events are made to appear as following a similar pattern — a narrative of luring by a Muslim male in the name of love, and of Hindu female victimhood. Hate speech is repeatable speech, drawing its strength from stereotypes. In replication and reiteration lie its strength, its ability to renew itself and its authority as supposed truth. In the love jihad campaign, representation, performance and events feed into each other, providing one of the primary sources of communal power.
Moreover, in comparison to the 1920s, new dimensions have been added to the love jihad issue. In the wake of terrorist threats and Muslim fundamentalism, anxieties have been created of a global Islamist conspiracy and foreign hand in such conversions. It appears that when confronted with the phenomenon of conversion from Hinduism to Islam, especially by Hindu women, certain kinds of Hindus lose their logical faculty. The politics of cultural virginity and a myth of innocence are combined with a perceived “illegitimacy” of the act, leading to rants of violation, invasion, seduction and rape. These politicised entanglements generate an “intimate politics”, an embodied struggle, in which Hindu communal agendas are reformulated through women.
Besides, such a hate campaign, while providing glue for claims to Hindu homogeneity, also underwrites certain fears and anxieties of some Hindu organisations. For all its limitations, some of these women are “breaking rules” through the highly ritualised act of individual religious conversion, guided in many cases by inter-religious romance and love marriages.
These localised and embodied practices of women can be a strategic manoeuvre with social ramifications. Ambedkar upheld inter-caste marriage as one way to annihilate caste, since it produced fissures in the maintenance of caste purity and control over women’s sexuality. Perhaps inter-religious marriages, too, can be a way to produce cracks in orthodox Hindu mandates and create ripples in codified definitions. Such an exercise of choice, even when partial, can perhaps also aid a transformative politics of intimate religious rights.
The writer is associate professor of history, University of Delhi