India is a land of myriad faiths. but this diversity is now under threat as fringe Hindu elements attack consensual inter-faith relationships in the hope of narrow political gains
By Bhavdeep Kang
ove jehad” means different things to different people. But it literally means using love as a weapon in the struggle against unbelievers. For parents of minor Sikh girls who fell victim to “sexual grooming” by Muslim men in Britain, it is a hate crime. For shooter Tara Shahdeo, it meant seduction and betrayal by a man she alleged had passed himself off as a Hindu in order to marry her. For gender activists, it’s a paranoid fantasy of right-wing lunatics who want to undermine the right to self-select partners. For those same lunatics, it represents at best, an assault on Hindu manhood and at worst, a conspiracy to take over India.
In upper middle-class India, inter-faith marriages are common enough not to occasion comment. From the 1950s onwards, students exported by hopeful parents who wanted them to acquire a foreign education and jobs, have come back with non-Indian partners. Hill stations are peopled by the products of European-Indian unions. Dozens of Bollywood celebrities have contracted inter-faith marriages, actors Shah Rukh Khan and Naseeruddin Shah being just a few examples. Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan did so twice, as did filmmaker Muzaffar Ali. Politicians, too, are not exempt from this trend.
Why, then, do inter-faith relationships—essentially a contract between two individuals—disturb even the moderates among the Hindu right? Dr JK Bajaj of the Centre for Policy Studies observes that it is a matter of concern for state and society only if such relationships are contracted as part of a concerted conspiracy aimed at religious conversion or revenge against the majority, rather than a matter of the heart. Thorough research is needed to establish whether or not that is the case. If so, “love jehad” certainly must be opposed, he adds.
The term “love jehad” may be new but the practice goes back a century. Many venerable partition refugees recount instances of women of their family being carried off, converted and remarried, as a result of which they have brethren across the border they’ve never seen.
Mahatma Gandhi documented his own brush with “love jehad” back in 1924, in the wake of the Kohat riots in the North West Frontier province (now known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). The brutal murder of 155 Hindus and their subsequent flight from Kohat took Mahatma Gandhi to Rawalpindi, where he interviewed the victims (he was not permitted to visit Kohat). He appeared to accept their allegations regarding the abduction, rape, forced conversion and remarriage of their womenfolk, among them “a photographer’s wife in Kohat, a Hindu woman in Tal, and a Hindu in Bhago, who were converted to Islam”. These were from testimonies collected by Gandhi from the riot victims itself.
The Mahatma observed: “Sometimes Muslims kidnap a woman and make her embrace Islam. I do not understand how, in this manner, she can become a Muslim. She does not know the Koran. She does not know the Kalama…I cannot understand how she can become a Muslim…Does their religion teach them to abduct anyone’s wife and make her a Muslim? It is unbearable for me if any woman living in the Frontier Province is forcibly violated. If it is argued that she has embraced Islam, I am not prepared to believe it.”
He advised the Hindus not to return to Kohat without honor. “If someone abducts my wife and she reads the Kalama, then I can no more live in this world. Either I would seek your help [in defending her] or beg you to take her back into the Hindu fold. I would be a coward if I did not act in this manner. I cannot claim to be her husband. If you are men and wish to live like men, then make a solemn declaration that as long as conditions do not change, you will not return to Kohat.”
The incident continued to haunt Gandhi even after he returned to Sabarmati, and on the morning of February 10, 1925, he awoke the whole ashram and told them about Kohat. “The Muslims said many things frankly about proselytization. But that activity has hurt me very much.” He went on to say: “I want to caution you because you may sometimes face a similar situation.” In that case, he said, his doctrine of non-violence should not be interpreted in a “superficial” way. He would subsequently advise readers of Navajivan, the publishing house founded by him, that “the sword has a place in the world but not cowardice” and they should not fail in their duty to protect their wards.
Religion doesn’t matter
Bollywood has shown the way in inter-faith marriages, whether it is Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah, Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan, Kiran Rao and Aamir Khan, or Gauri Khan and Shah Rukh Khan
Genesis in Kerala
In contemporary India, a place of increasing social osmosis and thinning barriers, the fear of forced conversion has given way to the fear of induced conversion—Muslim youth wooing Hindu girls rather than carrying them off by force. The Kerala High Court took note of “love jehad” in 2009 while hearing the bail applications of two Muslim youth charged with seducing a Hindu and a Christian girl. Justice KT Sankaran, having perused the case diary, observed: “It is stated that there is a movement or project which is called ‘Romeo Jehad’ or ‘Love Jehad’ conceived by a section of the Muslims. The idea appears to be to convert girls belonging to other religions to Islam. It is stated that Muslim boys are directed to pretend love to girls of other religion and get them converted to Islam.” He then ordered the director general of police to place a report on “love jehad” before the court, but the state police denied all knowledge of the alleged conspiracy.
More significant was the 2012 Kerala High Court ruling on inter-faith marriage, which appeared to have drawn inspiration from Gandhi. It said that marriage preceded by conversion—as a means to facilitate the marriage—would be deemed invalid before the law. The marriage would have to be contracted under the Special Marriage Act in order to be recognized. The case in question was that of Shaiju, a Muslim man who converted to Hinduism in order to marry his love, Ashwathy. The VHP had facilitated the conversion and the marriage.
The ruling, seen in conjunction with the anti-conversion laws in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, which disallow conversion on the basis of force or inducement, will certainly put a crimp in the marital plans of mixed-faith couples. Madhya Pradesh recently amended its anti-conversion law, introducing a provision which makes it mandatory to seek permission from the state authorities before the conversion can take place. Incidentally, the state was a “love jehad” hotspot in 2007, when Bajrang Dal activists were outraged by a spate of inter-religious marriages there. They documented 341 cases of mixed marriages from 1997 to 2004 and held them up as proof of conspiracy.
While the Kerala High Court judgment poses a problem for inter-faith couples who want a quickie religious wedding rather than a civil one, an earlier Supreme Court judgment (May 5, 2000) lowered the boom on many Hindu men who converted to Islam in order to take advantage of its personal law and legitimize bigamous marriages.
In fact, the epic romance of Dharmendra “Dilawar” and Hema Malini “Aisha” may not have reached its happy conclusion if Justice S Saghir Ahmed’s ruling that newly converted grooms could not avoid “prosecution under Section 494 in respect of a second marriage under Mohammedan Law” had come a couple of decades earlier. This did not, however, prevent former Haryana deputy chief minister Chander “Chand Mohammad” Mohan from converting to marry the beauteous Anuradha “Fiza” Bali in 2009. When the romance ran its course, he dumped her and converted right back.
Religious conversion, with all its legal dimensions, is arguably a subject for the state. But the crux of the debate is whether it is part of a conspiracy—and that’s when the numbers become important.
In Kerala, the Catholic Bishops Council said 4,500 girls had been converted by Muslim youth who feigned love to lure them into marriage. When the issue was raised in the assembly earlier this year, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said 2,667 young women had been converted since 2006, according to figures available with the government, but found no evidence that these were forced.
The Hindu Janajagruti Samaj declared that 30,000 girls had been targeted in Karnataka alone. Speaking of numbers, an audio clip doing the rounds on Whatsapp warns: “If a Muslim man marries two Hindu girls and has 12 children, in 24 years the Muslims will take control of India. If a Muslim man marries one Hindu girl and has 6 children, in 40 years India will become an Islamic state.” As evidence of authenticity, the clip cites the arrest of one Wasim Akram of Nazirabad for entrapping Hindu girls by posing as a Hindu on social networking sites.
Right-wing vigilante groups like the Hindu Rakshak Samiti in Maharashtra and politicians like Lok Sabha MP Yogi Adityanath seem unaware of just how deeply offensive their projection of Hindu women as gullible and weak-minded and therefore, in need of constant protection, can be.
Journalist Nisha Susan, who started the “Pink Chaddi” campaign against the Shri Ram Sena in Bangalore, says that inter-faith marriages were a non-issue until it resurfaced as “love jehad”, a political slogan adopted by the BJP after the Kerala High Court’s observation. “Suddenly (love jehad) is the hottest topic,” she said.
But most of us, she said, try and find reasons to rubbish it and “find data to establish that Muslim men are not seducing Hindu women with their hot, dark eyes.” And though intercommunity marriage is a non-issue as far as the lives of BJP netas are concerned, they don’t mind making it an issue outside their homes for political dividends. So now, interfaith couples will be hailed as heroes by some, traitors by others and rebels by their peers.
She added that the BJP has capitalized on our inherent fear of an alien culture to whip up sentiment against “love jehad”. Parents are fearful of girls marrying out of caste, let alone out of religion.It is this fear that we have to overcome, otherwise we play into the hands of the lunatics, she pointed out.
The elephant in the room in any discussion on inter-faith relationships is what scientists like to call “unidirectional paternal gene flow”. Why is it always Muslim men marrying Hindu (or Christian) girls and rarely the other way around?
The phenomenon seems to lend credence to those who see inter-faith marriages as an Islamization drive. The Khasi Muslims, for example, have their origins in inter-marriage between matrilineal Khasi women and non-tribal Muslim migrants, with the wives converting to Islam post-marriage—even though they continue to follow tribal customs and adopt matrilineal clan titles. Muslim migrants marry tribal women with an eye on their fertile agricultural lands and also to legalize their status, says RSS activist Rajesh Katiyar, who spent many years in the region as a pracharak.
On the other hand, the one-way gene traffic could also be explained by the fact that Muslim girls have lesser freedom to pick their partners as compared to Hindu girls. And Hindu, Christian and tribal girls convert because as women, they are brought up to adapt to the marital home.
Perhaps the ugliest face of “love jehad” was seen in the UK last year, when the BBC reported the “sexual grooming” of Sikh teenagers by Muslim men. The girls were seduced and then subjected to horrific sexual exploitation by the gang. The London-based Sikh Awareness Society estimates some 200 girls, some as young as 12 and 13, were molested before the story broke. Three Muslim men have already been convicted and a dozen arrested in the course of the investigation. The incident, given that it involved two communities with a history of mutual violence, smacked of conspiracy. Call it “love jehad” or “sexual grooming”.
Where minors, misrepresentation of faith or identity by the groom and use of force are not involved, the state has a limited role to play in inter-religious relationships. The conversion issue certainly falls within its purview and could be resolved by making the Special Marriage Act universally applicable. The rest is up to society. Union minister Uma Bharati’s suggestion that elders of both the communities meet and sort it out so that the future of their youngsters is not compromised, has some merit indeed.
Cupid’s arrow is neither green nor saffron.