Written by Javed Iqbal Wani and L David Lal
In recent years, the Hindu right has peddled a false narrative about “Muslim men” conducting a “jihad” by manipulating “Hindu women” into falling in love with the intention of eventually converting them to Islam. A few years back, it would not seem realistic that a vague communal idea such as “love jihad” could be weaponised by bringing in an ordinance that promises to deal with a problem that does not exist.
On November 28, 2020, the Uttar Pradesh government further entrenched “communalism by law” in the state by activating The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religious Ordinance, 2020. It prohibits conversion from one religion to another by “misrepresentation, force, fraud, undue influence, coercion, allurement or marriage”. The stated goal of the law is to check “unlawful religious conversion” and “interfaith marriages with the sole intention of changing a girl’s religion”. It criminalises conversions in violation of the provisions of the law and will punish the guilty with a jail term of up to 10 years. The offences defined and stated in the ordinance are cognisable and non-bailable. Many BJP-ruled states have expressed an interest to legislate similar provisions.
According to the new law, a person intending to convert to another religion needs to inform the district magistrate or additional district magistrate at least 60 days in advance and submit a prescribed declaration that the decision is free from any pressure or allurement and of the individual’s free choice. Another declaration needs to be submitted within 60 days once the “conversion” happens. Only then will the person be able to attain a confirmation certificate that the conversion is lawful. The district magistrate’s office is required to exhibit a copy of the declarations on the notice board of the office till the date of confirmation of “conversion”. On paper, it claims that it is aimed at preventing “forced conversions” only. The legislation is indeed old wine in a new bottle, but this time has been weaponised further.
Among others, the issue of conversion was one of the main factors that motivated the enunciation of Hindutva in the colonial era. Anti-conversion laws in theory were designed as “protective” laws for the marginal groups, but, in reality, act as “prohibition” laws as they restrict freedom of marginal groups. The issue of religious conversion and limiting conversion through laws extends back to colonial times. Many princely states had one law or another dealing with the issue — the Raigarh State Conversion Act, 1936, Patna Freedom of Religion Act, 1942, Surguja State Apostasy Act, 1942, and Udaipur State Anti-Conversion Act, 1946 etc are examples. Similar laws were in place also in Kota, Bikaner, Jodhpur and Kalahandi.
In the past, several states have passed what are also referred to as Freedom of Religion Acts or “anti-conversion laws”. These are mostly state-level statutes aimed to regulate involuntary religious conversions. Odisha was the first state to bring in the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act 1967, followed by Madhya Pradesh that has a Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 1968. In 1978, “anti-conversion bills” were enacted in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Arunachal Pradesh. Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh also passed their “Freedom of Religion Act” in the year 2000, 2003 and 2006 respectively. Rajasthan also passed a similar Bill in 2006. Tamil Nadu adopted the Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act 2002, but it was repealed in May 2004. The most recent legislation of a similar kind was passed in Jharkhand and Uttarakhand in 2017. The point here is that the trend for communalisation of the issue of conversion is not new and has been sustained over the last 50 years in postcolonial India. In UP, it gains a new momentum because it is politically aimed to regulate (read prohibit) conversions to Islam through what the right-wing terms as “love jihad”.
Despite contestations over the nature of similar laws, the UP government did not learn anything from past mistakes and went a few steps further to make the law more regressive. The maintenance of statistics of “conversions” by the DM in the form of a register is nothing but policing of women and love beyond boundaries. It raises concerns about the privacy of individuals who wish to adopt other religions. Not to mention the liberty of an individual to choose a partner from another religion.
One of the most questionable templates on which the law in UP rests is the Brahminical-patriarchal treatment of women as property. It infantilises women and perceives them as lacking any agency, as if they are property that needs to be recovered. Above all, the law is antithetical to the freedoms granted by provisions in the Special Marriage Act. Persons belonging to two different religions get married under the Special Marriage Act, which has a long-drawn process already. In cases, where a woman feels coerced, she can take recourse to the law under existing provisions in the Code of Criminal Procedure. Excessive legislation only criminalises everyday acts. The need is not to create more laws but to utilise the existing provisions if any foul play or coercion is reported. The new ordinance is a many-headed hydra. It subverts the basic principles of a constitutional democracy that grants individuals freedom of choice and religion. It undermines the free choice of adult women by referring to terms like “allurement”. It fails to see that in matters of love, faith is secondary, and the choice is primary.
Such political tactics are, of course, aimed at policing intermingling of castes and faiths. But it achieves a key supplementary goal in the process. It takes focus away from questions of caste and caste oppression within the Hindu fold and thrives on creating threatening exteriority in the names of fighting demons that do not exist. It is interesting that there has not been a single case where the conversions of “tribal” and Dalit people in the states of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, etc., have invited action against organisations affiliated to the Hindu right.
Faith is not a matter of spectacular conversion; it is the most personal commitment one has with the belief. You enter a faith as soon as you believe in the basic premise of it. What the UP ordinance shows is that we have entered an era of belligerent Hindutva, which thrives by weaponising laws against love and choice. Adding the term jihad to love is not accidental. The term “love jihad” aims to extend the post 9/11 stereotype of Muslims as predators who operate in multifarious ways to conquer the world. It sees love, or its pretension at least, as a tactic of the war. In the process, it dehumanises a particular community.
An appropriate countermobilisation is required to challenge the communal spirit of the law. The posturing of law in India in issues of caste, gender and religion might appear impartial, but it operates in a web of partisan relations of power. The goal of such legislation is to gain the implicit partiality of law. It aims to gain political mileage by officially recognising unfounded concerns of the Hindu right. It converts personal choices and personal liberties into spectacular legal processes and battles. The complex web of administrative requirements involved in the process thrives based on an implicit threat. Moreover, it will have direct implications on the right of the individuals, level of tolerance in society, and the plural and secular fabric of the country. It will create a society of suspicion and petty vengeance.
The socio-cultural life of north India was based on the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, thriving on a harmonious co-existence of distinct cultures. The society was structured through mutual acceptance of different practices, norms and values. The alternative social vision based on social equality propagated by social thinkers such as Kabir, Ravidas, Tukaram, Chokhamela, Phule, and others holds immense significance in contemporary times. Kabir’s imagination of “tehzeeb’ carried the message of cultural plurality, respect for different value systems and humanism. Kabir in his poetry imagines building a social vision of a “Prem nagar” — the city of love — a land filled with love, mutual co-existence, and celebration of pluralities devoid of any hatred. He was one of the important architects of syncretic tradition in Indian society, which propagated the inter-mixing, tolerance and respect of different ideas. Kabir universalised the concept of love, opposed the ownership of love as caste and religion-specific, and emphasised its constructive role in the society. Even after centuries have passed, thousands of Kabir panthis (followers of Kabir’s teaching) comprising Hindus, Muslims, and other communities continue to uphold the plural values in the society. The idea of Prem nagar continues to live in the imagination of millions of people in our society.
Ideally speaking, there is no bigger “jihad” than love. Love is an act of ultimate freedom. It does not know the boundaries of caste, gender, race, religion, language or region. It cannot be a means to anything, love is an end in itself. Philosopher Alan Badiou is right in noting that love is anything but an adhesive substance, a medieval “glue” that binds two tragically divided subjects back to a single loving unit. Marriage or conversion or other social protocols could be a means to love but not its end. Those who are peddling a false narrative are doing a disservice to humanity by sabotaging the basic premise of human existence i.e., love. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “there is madness in love, but there is some reason in madness”. And that reason for love in a constitutional democracy is known as “choice”. We contend that “law” does not have the power to evaluate love. Because law thrives on justification and love requires none.
Wani is assistant professor, Ambedkar University Delhi and Lal is assistant professor, IIIT-Guwahati