In the last few weeks, the news of the alleged abduction of a Kashmiri Sikh woman who was ‘forced’ to marry and convert to Islam sparked outrage on social media. As per newspaper reports, members of the Shiromani Akali Dal led protests locally demanding that Manmeet Kaur, the 26-year-old woman in question be married off in her own community. While several who expressed their ‘concern’ were relieved when Kaur was ‘handed’ back to her family, others were elated as they celebrated her ‘restoration’.
At a time when the youth of the country is at an inflection point of empowerment, it is indeed ironic that a young woman would be viewed, perceived and spoken about in terms of a property. When two days later, she was married off to a Sikh man at a gurudwara and her bridal photographs were circulated on social media, not only was the right to love and marry (Article 21 of the Indian constitution guarantees protection to life and personal liberty) violated but she was also objectified as a prop of patriarchy.
Such a medieval-minded misogynist narrative is part of the rising wave of intolerance for interfaith marriages in India. So, when Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao announced their divorce earlier this month putting an end to their marriage of 15 years, some Hindutva groups were quick to point out how the Bollywood superstar was looking for his “next Hindu (woman) prey”. The culprit? A hypermasculine, hypernationalist, anti-love and anti-life campaign, brazenly known as ‘Love Jihad’.
Right-ing hate with Love Jihad
Controversial laws seeking to regulate religious conversions owing to interfaith marriages have been dominating news headlines. Last year in November, the Yogi Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh government approved the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, while the Madhya Pradesh Cabinet approved the Dharma Swatantrata (Religious Freedom) Ordinance, 2020. The Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018, also prohibits the conversion of religion for marriage.
According to the survey titled ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’, 67% respondents said that it is very important to them that interfaith marriages of women belonging to their community be stopped, while 65% said the same about men from their community. The recent survey published by American think tank Pew Research Center involved 29,999 face-to-face interviews, with respondents spread across 26 states and major faiths in India.
The Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance requires couples from different religious communities to provide a two-month notice to a district magistrate before getting married. The Ordinance invests the presiding judicial official with the discretion to decide whether the conversion was through compulsion and if so found, the offending person could be denied bail and sentenced to 10-year imprisonment.
Islamic personal law requires a non-Muslim to convert to sanctify the marriage. About a fifth of the population in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-run state of Uttar Pradesh is Muslim. Similar legislations are reportedly on their way through the BJP-run states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Assam. This stringent legal clampdown has to be seen in the context of how the ruling regime has been furthering its political narrative that paints the Muslim as the other. This ideology is a bedrock of the Sangh Parivar—the umbrella term used for the collective of Hindutva outfits that are offshoots of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) including the religious outfit Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). It is the same hate politics that has justified cow vigilantism and the discriminatory CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) passage in December 2019 that sparked protests and criticism from global human rights organizations.
Popularized by the Sangh Parivar, the term Love Jihad implies Hindu women are forcibly converted by Muslim men on the pretext of marriage. It has been reported how the Hindu-Muslim polarizing narrative has gained potency ever since 2014 when the BJP was voted in power at the Centre and in 2017 in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh that has earned enough bad press for its skewered sex ratio and caste-and-gender crimes. It is interesting to note how Love Jihad campaigners in western UP have projected the Muslim male seducer figure as a conqueror. Historian Charu Gupta observes in her article A brief history of love jihad, from Jodhaa Akbar to the Meerut gang-rape published in 2014, in which she quotes lines from a 1928-poem entitled Chand Musalmanon Ki Harkaten. A professor of history at Delhi University, Gupta talks about this parallel between the period the poem dates to and contemporary western Uttar Pradesh. “As a historian, one is struck by the uncanny resemblance of the issue and its language to similar ‘abduction’ and conversion campaigns launched by Arya Samaj and other Hindu revivalist bodies in the 1920s in North India, to draw sharper lines between Hindus and Muslims,” writes Gupta.
Right-wing social media groups have been equally active to ‘trend’ the campaign, according to news reports. Reports have highlighted some of the talking points including how madrassas are dedicated to converting Hindu women. As their modus operandi, these madrassas are said to be recruiting “good-looking Muslim young men” and training them to “stalk” Hindu women, according to the reports. The groups suggest that such organizations even fund mobile phones and motorbikes weaponized to “woo” Hindu women. The “modern” Muslim man/ Romeo is thus a feared entity, one that challenges the orthodox male Muslim figure.
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The patriarchal force
The communal campaign is anchored in Islamophobia wherein Muslim men have been described as “sexual wolves” on the prowl targeting Hindu women. The underlying notion of violating Hindu women’s bodies is fueled by a patriarchal imagination seeing outsider men as defiling ‘their’ women’s bodies.
Honor is the bedrock of Brahminical or upper-caste patriarchy. Caste dictates girls or women to follow anulom (hypergamy) marriages—wherein females are allowed to get married within their own caste or in an upper caste. A man is allowed to get married within his own caste or to a lower-caste woman. But the reverse pratilom (hypogamy) in which a girl marries a lower-caste man or a man marries a higher-caste female is not sanctioned. Local panchayats, known as the Khap panchayat in North India, punish individuals who transgress these approved boundaries.
Women are the mute site of ‘honor’, while men are the custodians of that archaic notion. Robbed of individuality, voice and bodily autonomy, women are infantilized in such patriarchal trade-offs. The Pew survey highlights how the opposition to inter-caste marriages was only marginally less than for interfaith marriages in India. Thus, a product of alliances in caste and faith, marriages in India are increasingly censored by gendered dictatorship.
Romance as subversion
Regimes are known to be unkind to romance. The idea of youthful romance acts as a threat to any structure of authority from the family to the State.
Love and romance therefore are viewed as subverting patriarchal authority and collective codes of society. The ideas of a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and women’s and men’s rights to have sexually and emotionally fulfilling relationships out of their own free will are alien to a culture currently thriving on legitimizing violence against non-submissive women and men.
One could recall the Right-wing groups’ marches on several occasions of Valentine's Day teaching young couples a lesson or two in Indian culture, even forcing them to call it Parents’ Day. Well, this is not about whether Valentine’s Day itself is empowering or not but about the rising Anti-Romeo/Love Squad determined to right the wrongs of coercion. Love and marriages stand at a perilous crossroad despite the Supreme Court stating clearly that the State shouldn’t interfere if two adults get married consensually.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)