In the last one month, Saba Khan, 38, a former journalist, who lives in North Karnataka, has been called a whore, a slut, a spy, an apostate, among other names, on social media.

The vitriol started after she posted a tweet on May 15, calling out a group of Muslim men seen reprimanding two hijab-clad Muslim women for walking with a Hindu man in a market.

“They are showing their power on girls,” Khan tweeted, referring to a video of the incident that took place in Meerut on May 13. In the video, which was shared on many social media accounts, the men accost the women and yank off their face masks to reveal their identity. The women, who looked visibly uncomfortable, are heard saying that the man accompanying them was their colleague.

On May 15, the Meerut police registered a case and arrested six Muslim men in connection with the incident.

Since her tweet, Khan has been targeted on social media almost every day for supporting what is called the “bhagwa love trap” or “saffron love trap”, and purportedly enabling the arrests of the Muslim men.

She is not the only one. Nabiya Khan, a Delhi-based activist, was forced to briefly deactivate her Instagram account after she was doxxed and trolled. In a tweet, she had asked why moral policing was reserved only for women.

“Bhagwa love trap” is a conspiracy theory that echoes the idea of “love jihad” propagated by Hindutva organisations. The term refers to an alleged plot by Hindu men to trap Muslim women by professing love in order convert them to Hinduism.

It has gained currency among social media users recently, though the term started to surface on social media around mid-2020. Several social media handles on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube have recently put out videos and photos of inter-faith couples and labelled them as being part of the “bhagwa love trap”.

Apart from such posts on the internet and trolling of those who object to such moral policing, there have been recent reports of Muslim women and Hindu men being accosted on the streets by men opposed to inter-faith friendships or relationships.

On May 25, for example, days after reports of men distributing pamphlets outside a mosque in Indore that warned Muslims against “bhagwa love trap”, a group of men allegedly waylaid a Hindu man and a Muslim woman and heckled her. When some Hindu youth came to their rescue, they were attacked with a knife. One person was injured.

In Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, a Hindu college student alleged he was threatened and abused on May 13 by a group of men after they spotted him with a female Muslim classmate in the market.

A case of interfaith relation labelled as 'bhagwa love trap' on social media. Credit: Screengrab/Twitter

A trap?

Kashif Arsalaan, one of several people campaigning on Twitter against inter-faith relationships, claimed to Scroll that “bhagwa love trap” is an “organised conspiracy”.

“Many Hindu organisations provide legal and financial support to Hindu men who marry Muslim girls,” he said. He claims that there are thousands of such cases.

To back up their claims, Arsalaan and others point to statements by Hindutva leaders exhorting Hindu men to marry Muslim women and convert them to Hinduism. In February, Pramod Muthalik, the Karnataka-based leader of the Hindu Ram Sene, called on Hindu men “to lure 10 Muslim girls if we lose one Hindu woman” to “love jihad”.

In 2017, a Hindu Jagran Manch, an affiliate of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, announced that they were going to marry 2,100 Muslim women to Hindu men under a programme called “Beti Bachao, Bahu Lao” or Save Our Daughter, Bring Home a Daughter-in-Law. The group had called it “reverse love jihad” and had said they would provide financial and social security to the newly-weds.

The pushback

A section of Muslims on social media have condemned such acts of moral policing and harassment of Muslim women.

Darab Farooqui, a screenwriter who has been active on social media calling out the policing of interfaith relationships, said those harping on “bhagwa love trap” had no data or facts to back up their claims.

Saba Khan objected to men harassing Muslims girls just because they are seen with non-Muslims in public. “No girl must be harassed,” she told Scroll. “No one has the right to touch her or snatch her hijab or her phone. She is responsible for her deeds and answerable to Allah.”

Mohammad Salman, former president of the Students Islamic Organisation of India, objected to instances of street violence carried out in the name of Islam. “You are violating the dignity, privacy and self-respect of the woman,” he said. “Such acts go against the core values of Islam.”

He was also dismissive of the claims of those crying “bhagwa love trap”. “If you accept such a theory, then you are not just blaming the Hindu right wing but you are also raising questions on the moral integrity and intellectual capacity of Muslim women and their attachment to religion,” he said.

‘We have to save our daughters’

Conservative opinion within the Muslim community, as in most other communities, remains cold to the idea of inter-faith relationships.

For example, Asma Zehra, former head of the women wing of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, argued that even if women have a relationship with non-Muslims out of their own will, the organisation still opposes such relationships on religious grounds.

“A nikah [Muslim marriage] can only be between two people who have belief in Islam that is, those who are Muslims,” she said. “And any relationship outside nikah is sin.”

She said the cases of harassment of Muslim women on the street was linked to the “anxiety within the community due to rising cases of ‘bhagwa love trap’”.

“We have to save our daughters from this conspiracy,” she declared.

Faizul Bari, a Delhi-based YouTuber, said it is his duty to warn Muslim youth “about the repercussions of such a relationship”.

“I see it from a religious point of view,” he said. “It is my religious duty to stop people from indulging in sin.”

He added: “We should also speak against inter-faith relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women because it causes a feeling of anxiety in Hindu society.”

The Muslim men who have allegedly resorted to street harassment have faced quick police action. Six people were arrested in Muzaffarnagar and five in Meerut.

Shoaib Khan, the brother of one of the men accused in Indore, alleged that the police were biased against Muslims. “When Hindus attack a Muslim man for being with a Hindu woman, the police arrest him instead of taking action against the attackers,” he said.

Khan, however, advised Muslim youth against such vigilante behaviour. “If you have to work on religion then do it in mosques and within the community,” he said. “We should not get involved in matters that put us or our families in trouble.”

Patriarchal mindset

The opposition to inter-faith relationships whether from Hindus or Muslims is rooted in the “patriarchal nature of Indian society”, argued Zakia Soman, a Mumbai-based women’s rights activist. “We may have made progress in some ways but by and large a woman marrying someone from another faith is not something which is acceptable,” she said. “It stems from the notions of patriarchal shame and giving the family a bad name.”

According to Salman, the polarising debate on the issue, and the trolling of those who question ‘bhagwa love trap’, show that there are “moral crises” within the community. “It is a culture informed by extreme identity politics where you first cancel non-Muslims, then liberals, then resort to name-calling fellow Muslims,” he said.

But Soman warned against equating the theories of “love jihad” and “bhagwa love trap”. “The Muslim community does not have an organised policy on ‘bhagwa love trap’,” she said. “In contrast, people doing violence in the name of love jihad have support from Hindutva groups, the police and the government.”