Missing since May of this year, Tuktuki Mondal of South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal returned to the police yesterday.  In a statement to the court, she claimed that she had run away since her parents physically abused her.

A young woman running away from home might seem to be a minor matter but this case wasn’t. Mondal’s case was politicised to the hilt, with Hindutva groups in Bengal, including the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party, playing up the communal angle. Allegations were made that members of the area’s Muslim community had abducted her.

Communal angle

An Indian Express report on July 19, however, quoted a senior district police official, claiming that it was a case of elopement rather than abduction: Mondal had run away from home on her own with a Muslim classmate from school.

Before Mondal’s return, and subsequent statement to the court, however, the Bharatiya Janata Party had already grabbed on to the issue. Party members along with state unit president Rahul Sinha, sat outside the local police station for five days in protest. On its website, the Bengal BJP claimed that it was its “movement” which “ensured rescue by police” (the police, however, said she returned on her own). “Our mission has just started to save every daughter and sister of West Bengal,” the BJP added.

We have seen this all before – many times in India’s history and with increasing frequency since May 2014, ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power at the Centre. Fear mongering over the battlefield of women’s bodies produces rich communal dividends, which can then be redeemed at the ballot box.

Love Jihad redux

In August 2014, in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, a 20-year old Hindu woman alleged that she had been kidnapped, gang-raped and then forcibly converted to Islam. This sent shock waves through the state, with the BJP immediately taking it up as a political issue.

A new term entered India’s national discourse: Love Jihad, a term previously confined to Kerala and coastal Karnataka, made infamous by the likes of Sri Ram Sena which alleged a fantastic, organised process by which Muslim men would feign love with Hindu women with the ultimate aim of converting them.

The BJP’s Member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh and star campaigner, Yogi Adityanath, was particularly strident about this, calling it an “international conspiracy” and had no qualms about using it as an election issue in the by-polls. His fellow BJP MP from Unnao, Sakshi Maharaj, provided more granularity: madrassas handed out cash incentives for affairs with non-Muslim girls, he claimed (Rs 11 lakhs for an affair with a Sikh girl, Rs 10 lakhs for a Hindu and Rs 7 lakhs for a Jain).

The president of the UP state unit of the BJP, Lakshmikant Bajpai, declared that Muslims committed a precise 99% of rapes in the state. The BJP, in its state executive meeting held in August 2014, even discussed Love Jihad and passed a resolution which claimed that “those accused of rape are from a specific section and are targeting women from another section”.

Politics over woman’s bodies

Within two months, however, the woman from Meerut retracted her charges.  As it turned out, she had eloped with a Muslim man with whom she was in love. The  charges that had sparked off this political storm, it turned out, were concocted under family pressure.

This wasn’t the only instance of alleged Love Jihad but most of them met the same fate. "In most cases we found that a Hindu girl and Muslim boy were in love and had married against their parents' will," state police chief AL Banerjee told Reuters. "These are cases of love marriages and not Love Jihad."

The parallels of the Tuktuki Mondal case to Uttar Pradesh’s “Love Jihad” are not difficult to miss. The concept of a community’s honour residing in a woman’s body is blown up and politicised for electoral gains. For the 2014 Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh, BJP President Amit Shah had himself raised the issue, talking of Muslims who "violate our women… who rape our sisters and daughters”.

The Bengal BJP is simply following in the footsteps of the Sangh Parivar nationally. The Bajrang Dal’s February 2015 campaign to launch a “beti bachao” (save our daughters) campaign in Uttar Pradesh, for example, neatly mirrors the Bengal BJP’s post-Mondal patriarchal “mission” to “save every daughter and sister of West Bengal”.

Of course, it remains to be seen how open Bengal is to this brand of politics. Although one of the most communally volatile states until the 1960s, Bengal has seen a remarkable drop in religious violence since then. Does this mark an ominous reversal of that 50-year old trend?

The Hindutva activist, Tapan Ghosh who played a key role in communalising the Tuktuki Mondal case, is off an another "Love Jihad" wild-goose chase already.