A popular story among the Hindu Right is “love jihad”, in which Hindu girls are claimed to be at risk of corruption and Hinduism itself at risk of extinction due to interreligious marriages that result in forced conversions to Islam. The Hindu Right’s feverish devotion to this narrative has resulted in violent assaults against Muslims, laws against interfaith marriage and more in recent years.

“Love jihad” and its alleged threat to Hinduism are myths. In June, the Pew Research Center published the results of a large-scale study showing that interfaith marriages are vanishingly rare in India these days. The same study concludes that more Indians convert into Hinduism rather than out of it.

But stories do not need to be true to hold truth. The myth of love jihad offers insights – not regarding its purported subject, namely Indian Muslims – but, rather, regarding its tellers: the Hindu Right. It underlines their vicious Islamophobia, investment in controlling female sexuality, and a preference for religious segregation. It also speaks to their projected fragility and desire to maintain social dominance, including by inventing a persecution story.

No doubt the Hindu Right fails to appreciate what I and others (also here) glean from their love jihad tales. But one facet of stories is that they can lay bare (whether the tellers like it or not) – things about those who value and transmit them.

The story of Suha Bhatta

Indians have told other stories of conversions and persecutions, in different times and places, and one popped up in research on my most recent book, The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Muslim Pasts (Penguin, 2021). In the late 14th century and early 15th centuries, a Kashmiri Brahmin named Suha Bhatta converted to Islam and, the tale goes, went on to persecute Brahmins.

Suha Bhatta was a real man who worked for the Shah Miri dynasty, a Muslim-led Kashmiri polity, primarily during the reign of Sikandar Shah (r. 1389-1413). I have no reason to doubt the historical truth of Suha Bhatta’s conversion. In fact, probably, Suha Bhatta was not alone in his decision to change religions. At some point, many Kashmiris adopted Islam, although we still know little about the mechanisms and timing of these conversions (in contrast, we are on firmer ground in understanding premodern Bengali conversions to Islam).

Our knowledge of the historical reality of Suha Bhatta’s story stops here. The rest of his tale – whether true or mythological – offers us insights regarding the man who wrote it down for posterity: Jonaraja.

Jonaraja was a Brahmin Sanskrit intellectual at the court of Zayn al-Abidin (r. 1418-’19, 1420-’70), the most famous ruler in the Shah Miri line. In the 1450s, Jonaraja authored the River of Kings (Rajatarangini), a continuation of Kalhana’s mid-12th-century history of the same title, on Zayn al-Abidin’s orders. Throughout his River of Kings, Jonaraja seeks to come to grips with the complex political realities of medieval Kashmir and, within that context, to advocate Brahmanical privilege.

We might describe Jonaraja’s investment in preserving (or restoring) Brahmanical rites, rituals, and social position as an obsession, except that Jonaraja saw this as a virtue rather than as a vice. Whereas many today who defend Brahmanical privilege prefer a veneer of denial to hide their devotion to a system widely perceived to promote gross discrimination and ranking of human worth, Jonaraja openly championed a value that he held dear: fundamental inequality.

The perils of caste traitors

Jonaraja opens his narration of Suha Bhatta’s saga with Kashmiri Brahmins – along with their mantras and gods – having lost power. Jonaraja gives a standard reason for this dismal state of affairs that is well-worn in premodern Sanskrit literature: the evils of the Kali Yuga (kalidoṣeṇa, v. 594). He also gives a more specific reason: Suha Bhatta who loathes Brahminical ritual (brāhmakriyādveṣī, v. 596). Jonaraja is cagey about what motivated Suha Bhatta’s alleged enmity against the formidable Brahmanical edifice of power through exclusive access to religious rites.

Jonaraja mentions that Suha Bhatta was taught, even enlightened, by Muslims (mlecchaiśca pratibodhitaḥ, v. 596), but he declines to offer details of his conversion, even eschewing Suha Bhatta’s preferred name of Malik Saifuddin. Rather, Jonaraja uses Suha Bhatta’s story to dwell on two things: the fragility of Brahmins and the perils of caste traitors.

According to Jonaraja, Suha Bhatta led a persecution of Kashmiri Brahmins (dvijātipīḍana) around the turn of the 14th century. In Jonaraja’s story, Suha Bhatta is said to have tortured many Kashmiri Brahmins, drove others to suicide, and prompted some to flee the region. At one point, Suha Bhatta is alleged to have blocked Kashmir’s borders and, as per Jonaraja’s Sanskrit text, “went fishing for Brahmins” (v. 657).

If we were adapting this into an English metaphor, we might say that Suha Bhatta is depicted as attacking Brahmins as if shooting fish in a barrel. Jonaraja claims, with almost palpable ire, that Kashmiri Brahmins were deprived of their income and stripped of their privileged position in society. He mourns that “like dogs begging for scraps, the Brahmins stuck their tongues out before every house” (Rajatarangini, v. 669).

Assault on caste privileges

I am uncertain how much of this narrative is rooted in reality. But I am quite clear that Jonaraja imagined Suha Bhatta’s actions to constitute an assault on caste privileges. Jonaraja describes Suha Bhatta’s assault in terms of class and caste, varṇa and jāti, respectively. Quite directly, he states that “Suha Bhatta strove to abolish caste” (jātividhvaṃse sūhabhaṭṭaḥ kṛtodyamaḥ, v. 605), whereas the Brahmins who fled Kashmir sought to protect their hereditary privileges (jātirakṣām, v. 655). Jonaraja castigates Suha Bhatta for turning on his own kind (v. 651):

The hawk kills other birds.
The lion hunts other animals.
A diamond scratches other gems.
The earth is dug by earth-digging tools.
Planets, like flowers, fade in the sun.
The rule is this: horrific harm comes from one’s own kind

The modern Hindu Right might couch this story in different language, claiming that Suha Bhatta was Hinduphobic (a newfangled epithet applied to an ever-increasing number of people). But, in so doing, they would depart from Jonaraja. Jonaraja gives little sense of caring about non-Brahmins or even conceptualising other Hindus as part of the hereditary tradition of privilege that he wished to protect. Rather, Jonaraja limited his interests in this regard to Brahmins. Jonaraja uses the adapted Persian term hinduka – uncommon if even attested before him in Sanskrit – twice in his text, both times as a synonym for upper castes alone.

Jonaraja’s story of Suha Bhatta’s conversion and persecution may not be true in many, or even most, of its details, but it holds truth regarding a key value professed by Jonaraja: protecting elite interests and social dominance within the complex politics of 15th-century Kashmir.

Not everyone today would care to listen to a voice from the past like Jonaraja, who advances Brahmanical privilege without shame or apology. But I do. History is full of prejudices and stories that are distasteful to modern sensibilities, and it is often when we might prefer to tune out the past that we should listen in more closely. Sometimes, in pursuit of recovering who we used to be, we find that, to our horror, old prejudices and the desires of elites to maintain power are still too familiar in the present day.

Audrey Truschke is Associate Professor of South Asian History at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.