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How ‘love jihad’ went from being propaganda to policy

‘Love Jihad’ started as a joke, but now not only are states competing with each other to bring in draconian laws, it was a pivotal issue in recent elections

The “love jihad” laws enacted by the states have created much controversy over their potential for misuse. There have also been widespread reports of police harassing interfaith couples merely on complaints. (Representational)

Moving the Amendment Bill to the Freedom of Religion Act 2003 in the Gujarat Assembly recently, state home minister Pradipsinh Jadeja said, “There is international finance being channelised to lure Hindu girls into marriage and then conversion.” In the debate that followed, one Congress legislator tore the copy of the Bill and another accused the government of playing communal politics. None asked the minister to furnish evidence of “international finance” being pumped into the state to trick gullible Hindu girls. Or what steps the government was taking to curb the flow of FDI into Project “Love Jihad”.

By not challenging the home minister’s assertion, the opposition became complicit in the theory of “love jihad” being a global conspiracy. The response to Jadeja’s communal rhetoric must not be political theatre; it demands a counter by facts. When propaganda is not challenged, it becomes policy. “Love jihad”, which started as a joke, has now assumed the status of a national threat. Not only are states competing with each other to bring draconian laws, in recent state elections, campaigns pivoted on this. Canvassing for the BJP in West Bengal a few days ago, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath promised voters that his party would set up “anti-Romeo squads” in the state to check “love jihad”.

The biggest evidence of “love jihad” in the hands of these propagandists is: More Muslim men marry Hindu women in comparison to Muslim women marrying outside their religion. I believe this is true. But that’s only half the truth. In India, marriages are traditionally fixed by family members and rarely go beyond predetermined boundaries of religion, caste and perceived socio-economic compatibility. Those who choose their own partners are rebels who disrupt this order. Two factors are needed for this rebellion: One, motivation, which implies meeting someone who inspires one to break free; and two, courage, which comes from the confidence that one would be able to succeed in one’s rebellion.

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In its 2005 report, the Justice Sachar Committee observed that Muslim women are the first to disappear from formal education and the last to join the organised workforce. This peripheral existence renders them at the mercy of the men in their families. This lack of agency over their lives is compounded by two factors: Insecurity that has been part of a Muslim’s mental make-up post-Independence, given the history of communal violence and targeted sexual violence against Muslim women; and the belief that a family’s honour resides in the body of its women. Hence, women must be sheltered/ veiled as far as possible.

Given this, where are the public spaces where Muslim women are likely to meet non-Muslim men long enough for them to fall in love? Muslim women who do manage to pursue higher education mostly do so in all-women, often Muslim-run, institutions. As far as employment is concerned, except for mass media, how many Muslim men do you find in the organised sector, forget women? Not only do average non-Muslim men have little access to Muslim women, even Muslim men are not able to socially interact with many Muslim women outside the family.

None of this is a state secret. Yet, an average citizen shows surprising gullibility in accepting that this socio-economic phenomenon is linked with Islamic terrorism or Islamic takeover of India. One distraught father in Kerala (2017-2018) got the high court to intervene in the marriage of his adult daughter on the plea that her husband intended to supply her to ISIS as a sex slave.

What has brought about this naivete at different levels of the society? The answer is unchallenged propaganda of Islamic terrorism being a threat to India. Hence, anything that gets linked with it, is immediately accepted as truth.

In April 2002, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said at his party’s national convention in Goa, “Wherever I went around the world, the heads of state… complained to me that militant Islam is sowing thorns along their paths… these days, militancy in the name of Islam leaves no room for tolerance…Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others, they don’t like to mingle with others; they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats…”

How exactly did the prime minister reach the conclusion that Muslims “do not live in co-existence with others”? In which part of India have Muslims been “spreading their faith by resorting to terror and threats”? Shouldn’t all of this be a matter of record? There was no factual basis to these observations. They were the product of propaganda that the Hindu right-wing has been spreading since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through constant repetition, this falsehood has assumed the status of an unchallenged truth.

Unfortunately, Muslims have been complicit in sustaining this propaganda. Instead of being defensive, they should be challenging it at every turn. Of course, some Muslims have carried out acts of terrorism against civilians. They must be condemned unequivocally. But a lot of terrorist violence in India has a political context — as, for instance, in Kashmir. Political violence has to be distinguished from mindless violence in the name of religion.

The truth is India faces no threat of Islamic terrorism. “Love jihad” is not a cover for a global conspiracy. These are propaganda tools to create a state of permanent distrust and friction. But this mainstreaming of anti-Muslim sentiment for political purposes comes at a huge cost. A society constantly fighting imaginary demons within cannot go far.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 15, 2021 under the title ‘Lies, ‘love jihad’ and statistics’. The writer is executive editor, FORCE, and author of Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India

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