On July 23, Sahil Khan was beaten up by a mob outside a government office in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, where he and Preeti Singh had gone to register their marriage. Khan, a Muslim resident of Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, and Singh, a Hindu from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, had fallen in love while working together at a company in Noida. It took police intervention for the couple to be able to register their marriage.

A week later, two people who were part of the group that had assaulted Khan surrendered before a court in Ghaziabad. The police registered a case of rioting, criminal assault and criminal intimidation and said that they are in the process of identifying the other suspects. The police said the two men who had surrendered were not directly linked with any Hindutva groups.

However, Hindutva groups, by their own admission, have been working to stop inter-faith marriages in several states across North India using strikingly similar methods.

Rajendra Singh Panwar, a Bajrang Dal leader who heads several other Hindutva groups in southern Rajasthan, said he relies on an informal intelligence network he has cultivated in courts, tehsil offices and marriage registration offices – largely made up of clerks and lawyers – to tip him off about inter-faith marriages. The Bajrang Dal is the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and part of the group of organisations called the Sangh Parivar, to which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party belongs.

Panwar said this information network has greatly expanded in the last two years. Balraj Doongar, a Bajrang Dal leader from western Uttar Pradesh, said that Hindutva groups are also assisted by residents in various localities. In addition, they rigorously scan notices about inter-faith marriages published in newspapers.

Inter-faith marriages in India must be registered with the authorities under the Special Marriage Act, 1954. According to Raju Suman, a Hindu leader from Kota district in Rajasthan, the law has failed to keep up with the needs of the changing times. Defending the actions of Hindutva groups, he said most inter-faith marriages are actually cases of “love jihad”, the conspiracy theory which maintains that Muslim men are seeking to marry Hindu women to order to convert them to Islam. These groups do not seem to have a problem if a Hindu man marries a Muslim woman under the same law: if Muslim women in an inter-faith marriages convert to Hinduism, it is “ghar wapsi” or homecoming, they say.

Panwar believes that the people involved in the endeavour are participating in a worthy campaign. “Please do not call them informers,” Panwar said about the employees in the marriage registrar’s office in Udaipur, Rajasthan, who occasionally tip him off about inter-religious unions. “They are contributing to the Hindutva cause.”

Neighbourhood watch

Apart from the network of clerks and lawyers in courts and marriage registration offices, Hindutva groups rely heavily on groups of young Hindu men in various localities to keep track of inter-faith marriages. These men even keep an eye on their neighbours on social media, said Panwar. They keep in touch with leaders of Hindutva groups on WhatsApp, he said.

Neither Panwar and Doongar believed that these actions constituted stalking, which is a criminal offence.

The men hold “regular meetings with elderly people in the localities and make them aware of love jihad”, said Suman. “We have to tell them how mobile phones play an important role in inter-religious relationships. So, they should keep an eye on women in their families. In today’s time, we understand that it is nearly impossible to manage without a phone, so we insist that they ensure the women in their families subscribe to post-paid services, so that at the end of the month, their records can be checked.”

The marriage notice

Under the Special Marriage Act, an inter-faith couple who intend to get married must give notice on a prescribed form to the marriage officer of the district in which at least one of them has been living for a minimum of 30 days. The officer then publishes the notice in local newspapers and puts up a copy of it in a conspicuous place in his office.

In cases where neither the man nor the woman are permanent residents of the district where they have applied for their marriage to be registered, the officer sends the published notice to his counterparts in the districts of which the parties are permanent residents. The marriage officers in these districts display the notices in their offices.

The notice is published so that any person who wishes to raise an objection to the marriage – on grounds of age, consent or polygamy, among others – may do so within 30 days of the information being posted. If there are objections, the marriage officer takes a call. If the officer decides against allowing the marriage, they can move the district court.

This is how the process should work under law. But the marriage officer, for the sake of convenience, often asks the couple to publish the notice in a newspaper with a prescribed minimum subscription in the districts of which they are permanent residents, though there is no mention of such a provision in the Act.

Advocates have often pointed out how this 30-days notice system is a problem in itself, as are the newspaper advertisements, since this gives fundamentalists groups the time and opportunity groups to create trouble. In 2014, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women had reportedly discussed this with the Indian delegation at a UN convention.

Policemen stand guard outside the venue of an inter-faith wedding in Ghaziabad in December. (Credit: HT)

Scanning the newspapers

In December, it was the publication of such a newspaper notice that allowed a mob in Ghaziabad to learn about an inter-faith marriage taking place in a posh part of the city, the police said. Though the crowd attempted to storm the venue, they were stopped by the police.

While some Hindutva groups are strengthening their vigil of newspapers, many others have given up on this method of collecting information, saying it is not very reliable. “Very few cases are published in the papers,” said Doongar. “But we have still asked our boys to keep a close eye to make sure that we do not miss any input.”

There are other reasons why many of them do not rely much on the newspaper notices – such as language barriers, especially relating to English dailies, and the small size of most notices, which the vigilantes often miss, said a group of Bajrang Dal supporters in Meerut.

Both Suman and Panwar said they have asked their supporters to focus less on the notices and more on cultivating strong neighbourhood intelligence networks. Doongar said he has an army of 250-odd members, between the ages of 18 and 35, dedicated to keeping watch on inter-faith marriages. Suman and Panwar did not say how many supporters they had.

Success and failure

Panwar said he and his supporters managed to stop six inter-faith marriages last year. “It involved no force,” he said. “We only had to convince the families. In most such cases, the families do not give consent to such marriages, so it is easy to convince them.”

But he conceded that they failed to stop 11 other such marriages. “What can be done if the parents and relatives refuse to engage with us?” he asked.

However, the failure by Hindutva groups to stop marriages before they take place does not mean the end of trouble for inter-faith couples. In September 2017, a mob barged into the home of a married inter-faith couple in Hapur district of Uttar Pradesh and tried to assault them. The crowd was made up mainly of residents of that neighbourhood.

Panwar said his group has stopped four inter-faith marriages so far this year.

Doongar, for his part, said he believes in counting his successes and forgetting the failures as these discourage the “contributors to the Hindutva cause”. He recalled three cases in which his group had intervened last year, saying all the marriages were called off after scenes outside the marriage registration offices. All these cases involved men from Uttar Pradesh and women from other states. He said his supporters had made objections in one case as the man was already married. Of the other two cases, he said, “We stopped the couples and later spoke to their families and stopped the marriage.”