“Kashmiri Pandits?” he exclaimed, exasperated. “How is my daughter’s marriage going to do anything about Kashmiri Pandits? For the past three years, Modiji is running the country. Tell him to do something about the Kashmiri Pandits. Why are you telling me about it?”
The speaker is a resident of a wealthy neighbourhood in Ghaziabad, a part of the National Capital Region of India. You need to get past an iron gate, flanked by palm trees, a well-manicured lawn and three vehicles parked in the driveway to enter his large drawing room. It is furnished with a cream-coloured sofa placed against a stone wall. On it sits a white-haired, elderly man – let’s call him Arun Singh for now, since he doesn’t want to be identified by his actual name – wearing sweatpants and a black cardigan, speaking softly about the events of Friday. It is an unusually opulent setting for any sort of chaos, much less being besieged by a mob.
On Friday, Singh’s daughter was to get married to a Muslim man. On cue, hundreds of protestors descended upon the house, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party Ghaziabad president Ajay Sharma. “Bride’s family is under pressure and she is also being forced to adopt Islam,” Sharma told the Hindustan Times. “It is a case of love jihad and we oppose it. They have not taken any permission from the administration for the marriage.”
“Love jihad” is a Hindutva conspiracy theory that claims that Muslim men trick Hindu women into falling in love with them with the aim of converting them to Islam. The theory once existed on the fringes of India’s political consciousness. But recently, it has been taken up by the higher judiciary – even the Supreme Court – and on Friday entered into a posh neighbourhood of a Delhi suburb.
Yet, there is the other side: Arun Singh. He stood up to the Hindutva politicians threatening violence to ensure that his daughter married the man she loved.
Two (and a mob) to tango
Singh’s daughter and his now son-in-law met in college. “It wasn’t love at first sight like they show in the movies,” Singh said with a smile. “They knew each other for a long time. Both are highly qualified. They took this decision after years of thinking.”
Singh is a chartered accountant, businessman and the son of an Indian Administrative Service officer. His son-in-law’s father is a professor at a Delhi college. Both parents approve of the match.
The couple and even their families being on board, though, was not enough.
“Two days before the wedding, I started getting calls,” said Singh. The calls were from Hindutva groups such as the Bajrang Dal, who were aghast at this inter-religious marriage.
On Friday, BJP and other Hindutva groups gatecrashed the wedding. Protestors tried to force their way into Singh’s Ghaziabad house but a large police contingent kept them out. Protestors then blocked a major road just outside, in order to protest the inter-faith marriage.
‘Show me the marriage papers’
Singh even tried to reason with the mob outside his house. “I explained to them that this is a court marriage as per the Special Marriage Act,” he said. “All processes have been followed. We have a marriage certificate. There has been no conversion and no love jihad.”
This had little effect on the protestors. “They wanted to do their own politics, that’s all,” said Singh. “I was only a pawn for them. They wanted their limelight.”
He said that his son-in-law was ready to do the pheras, the Hindu marriage ceremony. “But what will we get out of that?” asked Singh. “My daughter has not even changed her surname.”
One person then asked Singh to show him the papers of the marriage. “Tu hai kaun, tujhe main papers kyun dikhaoon?” said Singh, now getting a bit angry. Who are you? Why should I show you the papers?
Singh notes how the bigotry against inter-faith marriages are spreading. “Earlier this would only happen in small towns and rural areas,” he said. “Now this happened even in this big city, in this rich area.”
But Singh wanted to draw a line. “I wanted to send a message to society with our resistance to these people,” said Singh calmly. He quoted the poem Saare Jahaan se Acchaa: “We have been always told, mazhab naheen sikhaata aapas main bair rakhna [religion doesn’t create enmities]. But now you [the people who wanted to stop the marriage] are creating barriers using religion.”
Even more disconcertingly, one of Singh’s own neighbours was in the mob outside his door that day. “A Mr Ahuja, who lives right behind my house, was there, as a Shiv Sena leader,” he said. “You, my neighbour, are coming here with 10-20 people outside my house. What does it say about you?”
Law facilitating bigotry
In this, the Special Marriage Act came in for special criticism, for having facilitated this mob pressure. “The SMA is a lengthy procedure,” he said. “You need to apply formally in court stating intent to marry. Even provide proof of parental consent. Once this is done, the local government puts out a notice – with our addresses – in the newspapers as well as puts it up in the local court, announcing the marriage and asking for people to come in and file objections.”
Singh suspects that this notice – a necessary part of the Special Marriage Act – could have tipped off Hindutva groups.
Many Indians choose to get married under the Personal Laws that apply to members of each religious group. If they want to get married under a secular law, they must do so according to the provisions of the Special Marriage Act. This involves a civil ceremony, with no religious rituals. Yet, as this example shows, the act has plenty of thorns designed to actually dissuade couples from conducting marriages that are often deemed unacceptable by conservative norms.
Singh, only half jokingly, explains that the process is not dissimilar to a passport application. “The file goes to the local police station and the local intelligence unit,” said Singh. “This means any marriage without parental consent is impossible under the SMA. Police came and asked me about the marriage. Only when I said it was okay, was the file forwarded.”
Singh notes that, ironically, religious marriages such as the Islamic nikah or the Hindu Arya Samaj ceremony are far easier to conduct than getting married under the secular Special Marriage Act. “The law doesn’t let anyone do the right thing,” he said, summing up his experience with the act.
Singh, however, is satisfied with the local district administration. “I am happy with the way they handled the situation,” he said. “The Additional District Magistrate and top police officials were here constantly.” On Sunday, more than 100 people were booked for rioting, including Ajay Sharma, the Ghaziabad BJP president.
This strong response from the administration has perhaps led to Sharma changing his mind about the marriage. “Someone told us that a Hindu girl is marrying a Muslim boy and that the marriage was being conducted under duress,” he told Scroll.in. “But then I spoke to the girl’s parents and he said that our information was wrong. Now I don’t think it is a case of love jihad. The parents are fine, the girl is fine.”
However, Sharma maintains that he has the right to intervene in such situations in the future. “If there is something wrong happening in society, we need to act. The police can’t do everything.”