The first case filed under the regressive new anti-conversion law in Uttar Pradesh illustrates precisely why this is a piece of legislation that enables misuse and harassment, and how it endangers inter-personal relationships in a society already hostile to individual autonomy and desire. The facts are these: A year ago, two adults who met in school fell in love and eloped. They were brought back to their families, and a case of kidnapping filed by the woman’s parents against the man, a Muslim, which led to his arrest. In court, however, the woman rebutted the prosecution’s case that she had been abducted against her will. Nevertheless, she was married off by her family to another person. Enter the “love jihad” law. A day after the UP Governor cleared the ordinance, the woman’s family filed a case against the 24-year-old Muslim man, accusing him of trying to force her to convert and marry him.
This is new gloss on an old, depressing story that plays out far too often in Indian society — that of families using all means at their disposal to browbeat young people, especially women, if they exercise choice in love and marriage. In many such instances, the law is a weapon that often reinforces the power asymmetry involved and quells the challenge from such unions to family fiat and archaic notions of honour. In Karnataka, another state that is considering a version of this law against freedom, this paper has reported that Section 366 of the Indian Penal Code (dealing with kidnapping, abducting and coercing a woman into marriage) is being used to stop several inter-faith and inter-caste unions. Studies have shown how the law against rape has been used to criminalise consensual relationships.
Given the structural inequalities of caste, gender and class that hobble Indian life, the implementation of a law is often held hostage to entrenched power equations on the ground. But the UP government’s law is doubly dangerous because discrimination is explicitly written into its provisions. In the hands of a conservative society and an overstepping police, it enables an unconstitutional assault on the rights of young men and women. In a climate of ceaseless communal polarisation, it is being used as a dog-whistle against the Muslim community. By allowing the state to certify what conversion is kosher or not, this law will pit Hindus and Muslims against each other in a zero-sum game in which the only winner is the overweening and unconstitutional power of the vigilante state.