According to a report published in this newspaper (‘Walking home with friend after birthday party, Muslim youth booked under ‘love jihad’ law’, IE, December 25), a Muslim boy who stepped out with a young girl in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, after a birthday party, landed in jail for apparently trying to induce the girl into marriage and conversion. The boy is now guilty till proven innocent, although the girl is vocal that her friend made no such attempt. The girl’s father says the police dictated the complaint and pressured him into making it. The young man’s future is potentially worse than that of other Muslim males picked up since the so-called love jihad laws came into effect in the state on November 24. This is because the girl is a Dalit, which means the punishment can be doubled to 10 years — the young man has also been charged under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act). His life has been blighted.
The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance operates at various levels. It comes no doubt from a visceral hatred of the Muslim male and the need to show him his place, a process that is of a piece with the political tactics and the hearts and minds of those who rule the nation’s most populous state. It is, however, important to note that although the law has been used only against Muslim males, it is actually about banning mass conversion per se.
For the larger Hindutva project is fundamentally about consolidating Hindu society across caste differences and the Muslims are the punching bags. The prejudice and fear against them is designed to instil such unity. The badly and hastily-drafted ordinance was brought in months after the brutal Hathras gang rape in Uttar Pradesh — the victim from the Valmiki Dalit sub caste was raped, allegedly by upper caste men on September 14 (she would die two weeks later). As the police action invited charges of a cover up, the incident became an embarrassment for the state government. Leading national dailies would subsequently report that 200 Valmikis in Ghaziabad district in Uttar Pradesh had converted to Buddhism on October 14 in protest against the caste prejudice displayed in the handling of the Hathras rape/murder. The district administration would downplay the conversion.
Indeed, the words “love jihad” find no mention in the ordinance but it takes a serious view of any incident where two or more people (say an entire family) convert to another faith. It is designed to harass those who wish to do so and makes the process the punishment. It is in this sphere too, that the ordinance is fundamentally against the vital principle of free will.
To put this in context, it’s important to recognise how strongly the current system reacts against any retelling of caste atrocity. Bhima Koregaon, for instance, located 30 kilometres from Pune is a site where the Mahars (a Dalit sub caste to which Bhimrao Ambedkar belonged) have celebrated their role as soldiers in the British victory against the Peshwas in 1818. A gathering on January 1, 2018 to mark 200 years of that battle was attacked and subsequently, the attempt to tell the story through the subaltern perspective was criminalised. The name Bhima Koregaon is now associated with cases and arrests of activists/ lawyers/academics.
Similarly, the leader of the Bhim Army from Saharanpur in UP often finds himself behind bars because he has another narrative to offer. Chandrashekhar Azad is a small player, yet he seems to invite repeated jail terms and house arrests. He has incidentally attached the name Ravan to his name, an act that some see as an insult to the belief in Rama, the God-King, for whom a splendid temple is being constructed at Ayodhya. Azad has repeatedly urged Dalits to assert their own distinct identity and not get submerged in the Hindutva stream.
As a new socio-political construct is being created by the BJP-RSS, there is a need to silence awkward voices. Mass conversions are few and far between but have been an important protest tool used by Dalits since Ambedkar himself famously converted to Buddhism in 1956. There is no pretence at fair-play as the same law that criminalises conversion makes it possible for people to “reconvert” to their faith. This is to ensure that the “ghar wapsi” (home-coming) initiatives by RSS linked organisations to get people from tribal communities, Christians and Muslims to “return” to what they see as the Hindu fold, face no hurdle. In other words, you can check-in any time, but you can never leave.
There are many historical fears, essentially that of the caste Hindu male, that lie behind the new law. To sum it up in a sentence — it is about the historical belief that somehow their numbers will decline if Muslim men wed Hindu women and if Dalits and Adivasis have the option of leaving the Hindu fold. A study of the pamphlets and literature of the right wing groups such as the VHP and Bajrang Dal reveal a phobic obsession with the two themes of seduction and conversion.
As all these neuroses come into play, the rights of women have been completely subjugated in this law. Any relative of the woman can file a complaint to get the police and bureaucracy engaged in an inter-faith marriage. The law presumes the woman is a chattel of the family, community and relatives who now have greater agency than her and can invite police and bureaucrats to interfere in an adult’s personal choice.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 31, 2020, under the title “A phobia called love jihad”. Naqvi, a senior journalist, is the author of Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi