“Love jihad” is hitting the headlines again, but this old wine appears today in a different bottle, as the BJP is taking over from vigilante groups.
The notion of “love jihad” first appeared in Gujarat in 2007, prior to resurfacing in 2009 in Kerala and in Karnataka under the auspices of Pramod Muthalik, a former RSS member who founded his own vigilante group, Sri Ram Sene, and who defined it as follows: “In love jihad, fanatic boys are encouraged to attract young Hindu girls outside ice cream parlours, schools, colleges and theatres … This is an organised effort to demoralise the Hindu community”.
This rhetoric came out in public in 2014. In September of that year, a few months after Narendra Modi was voted into office, two weekly magazines by the RSS, Organiser and Panchjanya, devoted their cover stories to “love jihad,” the latter showing the photo of an Arab wearing a keffiyeh and dark glasses beneath which read the title, “Pyar andha ya dhanda?” (Is love blind or is it a business?).
In reaction to “love jihad”, the Sangh Parivar launched a counter-offensive to prevent young Hindu women from being wooed by Muslim men. They formed special groups, such as the Hindu Behen Beti Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. Activists offered to help parents who lamented their daughter’s marriage to a Muslim and developed a network of informers in police stations and courts where parents might go to report a missing daughter, file a complaint for abduction, or to keep abreast of a case. This network of informers indicates the degree of osmosis that exists between the state apparatus and the Sangh Parivar.
Once on a case, warriors against “love jihad” resort to tactics ranging from disinformation to intimidation to coercion. Parents of girls who choose to enter into a love marriage with a Muslim do not hesitate, sometimes, to turn to Hindu vigilante groups to bring their child back into the fold. But organisations in the Sangh Parivar orbit have also sought to prevent interfaith marriages even when parents were not opposed. Not only have the police sometimes annulled marriages (in total disregard for the law when the bride and groom are both of age), but it has also let Sangh Parivar (or affiliated) brigades stalk interfaith marriages in which the bride is a Hindu.
The judicial apparatus has also contributed to this vigilante agenda, as is evident from the case concerning Hadiya, a young Hindu woman of Kerala who had converted to Islam in 2015 and married a Muslim man in 2016. Her parents petitioned the court, claiming she had been forcibly married and converted, despite her insistence that she had acted of her own free will. The state’s high court sided with the parents, invalidated the marriage in May 2017 and placed Hadiya under their guardianship, arguing that this “vulnerable girl” had probably been the victim of Islamist groups. Her husband appealed the decision in the Supreme Court which ordered the National Investigation Agency to investigate a possible Islamist conspiracy. The NIA said that such a ploy could not be ruled out, and that Hadiya’s case was not an isolated one. Without waiting for the probe’s findings, the judges released her into parental custody. But when they saw the investigation results, they ruled in March 2018 that her marriage was valid.
If vigilante groups, including the Bajrang Dal, have been the main instruments of the anti-“love jihad” campaign, the BJP has gradually used it too. The party considered overtly exploiting it ahead of by-elections in UP 2014. The BJP’s state unit included it in its programme before deciding against it. But the party made it a campaign issue during the 2017 elections. And shortly after forming his cabinet, Yogi Adityanath established “anti-Romeo squads” to “protect” women — in particular from Muslims.
Today, the BJP is going one step further in the states it rules by announcing new laws. On November 18, Narottam Mishra, BJP Madhya Pradesh Home Minister said: “We are going to table the Madhya Pradesh Dharm Swatantrey Bill, 2020, in this winter session in December against love jihad, which means a woman is forced or lured by a person of other religion for marriage and later she is tortured for conversion.” Now the UP cabinet has cleared a draft ordinance to check “unlawful religious conversions” linked to “interfaith marriages”.
Such a law would illustrate the transition from a de facto to a de jure Hindu Rashtra, something already evident from the Citizenship Amendment Act (2019). This process is bound to transform India officially into an ethnic democracy, like Israel — where mixed marriages are practically impossible.
But this new, law-based version of the Hindu nationalist fight against inter-religious marriages reflects another major change. The first ideologues of Hindutva were not against these marriages. On the contrary, VD Savarkar, in Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? considers that a non-Hindu would become part of the nation if he or she “adopts our land as his or her country and marries a Hindu”. Such marriages were good things for Savarkar and his followers, because they insisted that the same blood was running in the veins of the Hindus and those who had converted to another religion: Race, a key word in Savarkar’s lexicon, was potentially a cementing force. Today, by contrast, Muslims are seen by Hindu nationalists as impossible to assimilate, as if they belonged to a different species.
This logic harks back to the notion of caste endogamy that BJP leaders support publicly — as evident from Om Birla’s recent speech on the occasion of a Brahmin “Parichay Sammelan”. As Satish Poonia, the Rajasthan BJP chief, said even more recently, “In our culture, marriage isn’t just an individual choice, it also encompasses approval of religion and society”. Indeed, the fight against “love jihad” bears testimony of a devalorisation of individual freedom, in particular of women, who are seen as incapable of deciding whom to marry and as vulnerable to being seduced.
Another old syndrome, the idea of the Hindus’ demographic decline, also needs to be factored in: Inter-religious marriages appear as partly responsible for this decline in the Hindu nationalist worldview, in spite of the fact that the majority community still represents 80 per cent of society. But the “fear of small numbers” (to use Arjun Appadurai’s phrase) is all pervasive when cultivated for polarising societies. The Ahmadis of Pakistan can testify to this (ir)rationality.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 26, 2020 under the title ‘Law of unfreedom’. The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, and professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute