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Push to Legislate Interfaith Marriages Sparks Backlash in India

The renewed focus on “love jihad” has provoked outcry from critics, who see it as a blow to both communal harmony and women’s rights.

By Neeta Lal for
Push to Legislate Interfaith Marriages Sparks Backlash in India

Indian Muslim bride Riddhi Saiyad, left and Hindu groom Vijay Moradiya sit for a marriage ritual at a mass wedding hosted by a diamond trader in Surat, India, Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015.

Credit: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

The announcement by the state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan that they would push for a law on “love jihad” – a pejorative term to describe inter-faith marriages involving Muslim men and Hindu women – has triggered a backlash from citizens and activists alike. All four states are ruled by the right wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which also helms the central government.

Critics say that any such potential legislation militates against the idea of individual freedom and interferes with inter-personal relations, both of which are incongruous in the world’s largest democracy. An attempt to enshrine such prejudice in law by the state also negates women’s rights by treating them as gullible victims who need protection from supposedly predatory Muslim men in relationships, critics add.

The demand for such a law gained traction soon after the Allahabad High Court passed a controversial order in September stating that voluntary conversion of religion by an adult for the purpose of marriage is not valid. The order was in response to a petition filed by a couple seeking to restrain the state, and other unspecified parties, from deploying “coercive measures” to scupper their betrothal.

The couple included a Hindu man and a woman who was formerly a Muslim, but converted to the Hindu faith prior to the marriage. The High Court dismissed the petition, stating that the woman’s conversion had taken place only for the purpose of marriage.

Quickly latching onto the judicial order, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath announced that his government too will create a law to curb love jihad. The chief minister of India’s largest state also threatened physical violence against those who “lure” Hindu girls using fake religious identity and resort to “forcible conversion.”

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Soon after Adityanath’s announcement, other states like Haryana and Madhya Pradesh too, jumped onto the bandwagon to express an interest in legislating against love jihad. Karnataka Sports Minister T. Ravi tweeted that the southern state “…will enact a law banning religious conversions for the sake of marriage. We will not remain silent when Jihadis strip the dignity of Our Sisters. Anyone involved in the act of conversion shall face severe & swift punishment.” The BJP government in the northeastern state of Assam has also announced that it will make the subject of interfaith marriages and “forcible conversions” an issue in the next year’s Assembly election campaign.

Despite a renewed fervor among its advocates to legislate interfaith nuptials, constitutional experts say that any such move is unnecessary because the existing Special Marriage Act (SMA) 1954 would already cover such cases. The act provides for a marriage officer to vet identities and ensure consent in matrimonial alliances that could not be solemnized due to objections over religious matters from third parties.

“Thanks to SMA, any Indian can tie the knot without giving up their religion. The law also guarantees provisions for divorce including by mutual consent, custody of children, and alimony,” explains Rekha Aggarwal, a High Court lawyer and activist. “The law circumvents cultural taboos against marrying outside one’s religion or caste. So a new law for regulating interfaith marriages is a preposterous idea that contravenes the fundamental right of people who want to choose their partners.”

According to Dr. Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based policy think tank, the very phrase “love jihad” is itself insidious and contradictory. “Where there’s love, there is no need for a jihad,” she says. “This move is politically motivated and communally intended. It is also anti-social, sexist and patriarchal and reflects a failure on the part of its crusaders to even understand the most basic of human emotions – love. It creates scope for harassment and fuels a divisive narrative aimed at communal polarization.”

Kumari believes that the ostensible reason for bringing in such a law is to promote the fallacy that the “honor” of Hindu women is under threat from Muslim men, who are wooing them purely for the purpose of religious conversion in the name of love and marriage. “It is political claptrap,” she adds.

Kumari’s organization, she says, has often had to step in to resolve conflict among families and couples of interfaith marriages. Recently, a girl was beaten up by her family and locked up inside a room to put pressure on her to break up with a man from a different community. Both parties were counselled for weeks and made to see reason. Ultimately the duo could tie the knot in peace.

Most others aren’t so lucky. The recent murder of Nikita Tomar by her Muslim stalker is a case in point. A 20-year-old college student, Tomar, was shot in the head from point-blank range outside her college in Delhi last month by her stalker. Matters came to head after Tomar filed a molestation complaint against her stalker in September, who, according to her, was pressuring her to convert to Islam and marry him.

According to Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All-India Progressive Women’s Association, the fuss over legislating interfaith marriages is a ploy to gain control over independent women. “It translates as violence against women’s autonomy as well as violence against Muslims. The idea is Islamophobic and misogynistic and seeks to forcibly break up any relationship between Hindu and Muslims. It has been a part of the vocabulary of Hindutva politics for long and has lately moved from the fringe to mainstream acceptance within the political system.”

The activist adds that by pushing the boundaries of the Constitution along these lines, its proponents want to carve out a Hindu Rashtra or a Hindu majoritarian state. Krishnan, who has recently authored a book, “Fearless Freedom,” on the subject, also draws parallels between the demand to legislate interfaith relationships and South Africa’s Apartheid laws or those in Nazi Germany that endorsed violence and discrimination against minorities to create a system of White supremacy.

“Violence against women’s autonomy is the number one violence against them. The fundamentalists aim to terrorize women who are choosing their own partners from Muslim communities. They hope to create a political and legal system of Hindu supremacy. Under the current political dispensation, love jihad has become a way of persecuting such marriages,” adds Krishnan.

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Ironically, interfaith marriages themselves are fairly common in India. There are many high profile examples in fields such as the arts, sports, journalism, and business where Muslim men have tied the knot with Hindu women. Senior BJP leader Shahnawaz Hussain’s spouse Renu is Hindu. Many Bollywood stars – including Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Saif Ali Khan, and Sohail Khan – have married Hindu women.

Indeed the idea that two adults are not free to choose their own life partners smacks of state authoritarianism at its best, and a threat to the very existence of India’s most robust cultural institution – marriage – at its worst.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based columnist and editor.