What a BJP MP's remark about a Karnataka leader and his Muslim wife really tells us

They are increasing but inter-religious marriages are rare – rarer where love truly triumphs over identity.

It has been 23 years since she, a Muslim woman, married a Hindu man, but Tabassum Rao acknowledges continuing problems with her mother-in-law, a Brahmin.

“I do not get up early enough in the morning, I do not dress in silks, I wear pants around the house,” Tabassum Rao told me, laughing. As for religious issues, there are none. She performs poojas with ease, including sumangali poojas, which seek for spouses the blessings of women ancestors whose husbands outlived them. She has done these for women in the central Bengaluru legislative constituency of her husband, Dinesh Gundu Rao, working president of the Congress in Karnataka. She explained how her daughters, both in college, celebrate Hindu and Islamic festivals and Christmas – an easy, syncretic Bengaluru upbringing with which I identify.

The Raos’ inter-faith marriage was thrust into the spotlight this week when Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament Shobha Karandlaje said in strife-torn Mangaluru on Tuesday, “Everyone knows who he [Dinesh] has married.” Her meaning was clear: A Muslim, a particularly fraught reference because the police were struggling to keep a lid on Hindu-Muslim tensions and violence, the latest being the murder of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker last week.

The background to Karandlaje’s remark was Chief Minister Siddaramaiah’s jibe at his BJP opponent, BS Yeddiyurappa, for visiting Dalits in the run-up to Assembly elections due in 2018. If Yeddiyurappa was really concerned, said Siddaramaiah, he should get his children married to Dalits.

Karandalaje’s jibe drew attention to Tabassum Rao, who was soon fielding calls from television channels. “In 23 years, I have never experienced anything like this,” she told me when I contacted her the day after she took to Facebook to write this:

“It is no secret that I was born a Muslim and my husband Dinesh Gundu Rao, a Brahmin. We have been happily married for over two decades now… neither of us has converted… respecting all religion is a practice followed by us… we represent the unity in diversity that India stands for… As a homemaker and a mother of two daughters, I take strong umbrage to Shobha Karandlaje trespassing into our private lives for her narrow political gains… It is unfortunate that a leader of Shobha’s stature has stooped to such levels.”

Dinesh Gundu Rao shared that post.

The day after, on Thursday, the chief minister waded in.

Quiet world of inter-faith couples

While the caste-religion cauldron was stirred for the forthcoming elections in the last large state controlled by the Congress and reflects growing Hindu-Muslim tensions under the BJP, Tabassum and Dinesh Gundu Rao’s life was a window to a little-discussed and minuscule Indian demographic: inter-faith couples who do not convert after marriage.

The first thing about such couples is that they are, on the whole, quiet about the nature of their union, which says a lot about social acceptance or the lack of it, as Karandlaje displayed. Like the Raos, inter-faith couples who do not get spouses to convert and change their names are revealed to the public at large by chance. In June, there was Ajeetha Begum, taking over from her husband Satheesh Bino as commissioner of police in Kollam, Kerala. There was Rizwan Begum and her husband Parshuram, former Maoists rehabilitated by the Karnataka government and settled in Bengaluru. The marriages that are widely known overwhelmingly tend to be in the world of films, from Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan to film-maker MS Sathyu.

Ajeetha Begum takes over from her husband Satheesh Bino as Kollam's commissioner of police in June. (Credit: YouTube/asianetnews)
Ajeetha Begum takes over from her husband Satheesh Bino as Kollam's commissioner of police in June. (Credit: YouTube/asianetnews)

The second thing about such couples, especially if they happen to be Hindu-Muslim, is that they are relatively uncommon in modern India. No more than 2.1% of marriages in India are inter-religious (90% are within the same caste), according to this 2011 Princeton University study, which used 2006 data, the latest available. Of these, many convert, usually the woman to her husband’s religion. Hindu revivalist organisations now see a conspiracy when Hindu women convert to Islam – love jihad – illustrating the continuing unacceptability of inter-faith relationships.

“… When we talk about Indian marriages, which are inter-caste and inter-religious, it seems like a taboo to most of the people,” said the Princeton study. “But in order to eradicate the caste system and race discrimination, it is important that there should be inter-caste and inter-religious marriages.”

That is, of course, easier said than done. Young men and women from different faiths are routinely separated, hunted down or even murdered. The police often detain inter-faith couples, even if they are of legal age, when families complain. The relationship must endure months of detention in prison-like shelters for the woman, until the courts – often, but not always – reunite them. Such relationships are almost never accepted in rural areas, and those attitudes spill over into cities. Earlier this month, a Muslim man and his Hindu wife said they were refused a room in a central Bengaluru hotel once the front-desk clerk realised they were an inter-faith couple.

“Ordinarily, in villages, it [Hindu-Muslim marriage] does not happen,” the clerk told the Newsminute. “I grew up in a village. There, Hindus do not get married to Muslim women, and Muslims do not get married to Hindu women.”

The third thing about inter-faith couples is that their numbers appear to be increasing. Over two years to 2015, Bengaluru, for instance, reported a 300% increase in weddings under the Special Marriages Act, a 63-year-old law that allows inter-faith marriage, the Times of India reported in 2016. Urban India may not be particularly more progressive than rural India, but there is stronger legal and social support available to a man and woman from different religions seeking marriage. Inter-faith couples who face parental disapproval have a chance to lose themselves in the anonymity of India’s large, chaotic cities. There are also some truly secular families that have no problem with inter-faith marriages, and I know a few of these, where love has truly triumphed over identity. But the largest cohort, from anecdotal evidence, appears to be of families who made adjustments.

‘You have to take a risk’

When Tabassum Rao (Tareen was her last name before marriage) decided to marry Dinesh Gundu Rao – whose father, former chief minister R Gundu Rao, lived a secular life and freely appeared at mosques, churches and temples – there was some opposition, primarily from his mother. Her mother was easier to convince (her father had died). “My mother said, ‘You have to take a risk. I cannot help you’,” recalled Tabassum Rao. “I knew it would be tough, he knew it would be tough.” At the time, Dinesh Gundu Rao, an engineer, wanted to go abroad, so social disapproval was not an issue. But when his father, a career Congressman, died, he plunged into politics.

In Dinesh Gundu Rao’s constituency, Gandhinagar – an orthodox, mainly Hindu, old Bengaluru neighbourhood – no one has ever discussed Tabassum Rao’s Islamic faith, which is no secret there. “I find they [voters] are very tolerant,” she said.

When I asked Tabassum Rao what she, a secularised Muslim, might do if her two college-going daughters were to rediscover either religion and become hardcore believers, she replied, “I do not have much of a choice, do I?” And what if they were to marry someone from another faith? “Things are so different today,” she said. “I would suggest they not do it.” Of course, she would never object.

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