There is nothing on record to prove that the Muzaffarnagar riots were sparked off by a
Hindu girl being molested by a Muslim boy,or a romantic relationship between two such individuals,but there is little doubt that the rhetoric of protecting our women,our bahu-beti,from Muslim young men,fanned the swirling flames of violence. The bogey of love jihad,which the imagination of the Hindu right casts as an organised campaign by Muslim men to dupe innocent Hindu women into falling in love with them,with a view to convert them to Islam,was evoked recklessly.
In western Uttar Pradesh,which reports abysmal female sex ratios,this is a clever tool to both control women (who are increasingly asserting themselves) and cement the resentment against Muslims. There are similar anxieties about Hindu men taking away our women among Muslim groups. This plays on the memory of Partition in this region,which was very focussed on women and property,forcibly taken away by both sides. The choice of a partner from another faith is seldom thought of as a choice here, says political scientist Deepti Mehrotra.
The spectre of love jihad first arose in Kerala and coastal Karnataka. In Kerala,the police first said they had a case to investigate,and the High Court did too,before another bench of the Kerala High Court dismissed it a week later,in December 2009.
Historian Charu Gupta,who has researched the idea of love jihad,found it to be a political ruse to keep communal tempers high and women in check. She looks back at history to understand the current fears.In the 1920s,a whole series of meetings were organised in UP,which addressed themselves exclusively to Hindu males. In 1925,the Hindu Sabha organised volunteer corps of Hindu men in Varanasi to prevent Hindu women from eloping with Muslim men. They were particularly active at railway stations. In Allahabad and Jaunpur,various notices and appeals were addressed to Hindu men,asking them to keep a watch on their women and prevent their interaction with Muslim men, she says.
For political conservatives,it is inter-religious marriage that is the threat. For those who want religious identity to convert directly into voting identity,it is essential to not allow inter-religious ties to be cemented into marriage. Once ties between communities centre around beti or roti (marriage and sharing meals) it becomes impossible to demonise the other. In western UP,with a significant number of Muslims,rising prosperity,extremely conservative social codes,a young population,where young women are not keen on staying within traditional boundaries,the imperative to fan a bahu-beti crisis was immense. The cry of bahu-beti bachao is most clever,directed at women of the community against their wanting to have an independent life.
Young women in this region,increasingly attending schools and colleges,have unprecedented access to the world through exposure to new media. Many dream of leaving home,working,marrying whomever they fancy,forging friendships through Facebook and Whatsapp,as well as in real life.
Meerut is among the fastest growing cities in western UP. Here,high-rises and malls coexist with the historic cantonment where the first meaningful rebellion or ghadar against the British was initiated in 1857. People are happy with LCD TVs,smartphones,even an earning bahu but baulk at change that is bursting through a daughter not content to be confined to the kitchen,who wants the freedom to have an ice-cream with a boy of her choice or exchange pictures on the cellphone.
Lucknow-based scholar Achala Srivastava,in a paper for the Indian Council of Social Science Research two years ago,devised an index of development based on the 2001 Census,comparing the status of women in UP,district-wise,and found western UP districts most wanting,despite being economically better off. In the 2011 census,the numbers conceal a larger story. In Meerut,in particular,the sex ratio at 886 to 1000 remains far below the national average,940. But what has dramatically changed is the literacy rate. While the male literacy rate has risen by five per cent,for women,it has gone up by more than 10 per cent.
Morality TV and the Loving Jehad,Paromita Vohra’s documentary on Operation Majnu,an initiative in 2005 by local police to pick up and publicly humiliate couples found sitting together in a park in Meerut,highlighted how rightist fears were policing the spontaneous association of young boys and girls. On her new TV show Connected Hum Tum,Vohra featured Mahima,a confident Jat girl from Meerut,who wants to be on TV, a metaphor for her to break free and get more out of life. She has a sister Garima,a national judo player who has also left home. With increasing number of girls and women choosing to escape the confines of a patterned life,this has given rise to tremendous anxiety about women here.
That anxiety finds reflection again in the rumours about love jihad. But one should also remember that change,economic and sometimes social,is sometimes best signalled by the bitter resistance it encounters.