What’s common between these couples? Bakhtawar Master and S Venkatraman. Maria Manjil and Sandeep Jain. Rupa and Razi Abdi.
Master, a Parsi woman, fell in love with and married Venkatraman, a Hindu Tamilian, in 1958 against the wishes of her family. The story of Jain marrying the Catholic Manjil in 1998 is no different, as is the marriage of Rupa Abdi, born in a Hindu Brahmin family, with Razi Abdi, a Shia Muslim.
Drawing attention to these stories is the India Love Project, an online forum launched in October by journalists Priya Ramani and Samar Halarnkar, along with writer Niloufer Venkatraman. It brings together first-person accounts of love and marriage across the faultlines of religion and caste on Instagram and Facebook. Some stories are told by the children, even grandchildren, of the couples.
The impetus to launch the project came from the renewed focus on “love jihad” – a pejorative term coined by the Hindu Right to push the conspiracy theory that Muslim men charm Hindu women into marrying them with the sole purpose of converting their brides to Islam.
In October, Bharatiya Janata Party chief ministers in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka declared their intent to enact laws to prevent “love jihad”. The slew of declarations came weeks after Hindutva activists forced the jewelry brand Tanishq to withdraw an ad film that showed a Hindu woman happily married in a Muslim home.
The India Love Project aims to counter “the blatantly fake narratives and politically motivated hate-mongering” with real life love stories, said Halarnkar. “Campaigns like so-called ‘love jihad’ are merely excuses to snatch away agency from women, strengthen the hold of patriarchy and perpetuate stereotypes and lies,” he said.
In February, the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre itself admitted in Parliament that it had found no evidence for “love jihad”.
Halarnkar hopes that the India Love Project would eventually become a community “where those seeking love beyond traditional confines can find advice and support,” he said. “We hope to get lawyers on board because we have already had requests for help from some people. We hope to hold offline and online conversations and bring people together.”
On November 7, the India Love Project organised its first online talk session in which Lata Singh spoke about her seven-year ordeal to get her inter-caste marriage accepted by the law.
Born in a Rajput family, Singh married Brahmanand Gupta from the Bania community in 1999. Her brothers filed a case of kidnapping against Gupta’s family. The Lata Singh versus State of Uttar Pradesh case was resolved in 2006 when the Supreme Court ruled that inter-caste marriages are in alignment with national interest.
The project documents the struggles of inter-community couples but also their resilience. The stories offer a glimpse into the texture of Indian society, where families respond with violence but also with acceptance.
For instance, Rupa Abdi wrote about her marriage to a Muslim man: “My mother-in-law was a humble, religious woman who hadn’t received any formal education. During my first visit to her house, while Razi’s younger relatives were getting all worked up over the fact that Razi had married a Hindu girl, my mother-in-law’s reaction was simple. ‘If Razi likes her, then I like her,’ she said.”
Halarnkar observed, “I think it’s been established by now that education in itself is no answer to bigotry. The life you lead, the people you grow up with, the experiences you have are probably more important.”
Within weeks of going online, the India Love Project has drawn a storm of appreciation as well as endless first-person accounts of inter-community marriages and relationships.
Ramani shared some of the messages they had received: “You guys restore my faith in love….I wish to marry my muslim boyfriend soon one day, you guys are a total motivation”; “I am a child of an interfaith marriage (Hindu + Muslim) and now married to a Christian”; “I’m a child of an interfaith couple. Now my spouse and I are an interfaith couple.”
Another reader had a suggestion: “don’t you think breaking the shackles of age gap…are also equally important.”
The India Love Project does not believe in any shackles on love – evident from the story of Salma Siddiqui and Krishan Chander, shared by their granddaughter. Both left their first marriages with children to begin a new life.
“We are merely a forum,” said Halarnkar. “We do not censor stories, nor do we intend to present love as something pure and unblemished by human failing. Love, as we know, can be messy, painful and demanding. If some couples want to share its messier side, so be it.”
What about those who won’t be pleased to encounter such stories of love that defies social bounds? Halarnkar believes that “the elemental power of love and its myriad possibilities” would win over even detractors.
That aside, Halarnkar added, it is only logical to endorse inter-community relationships in India: “In a country where people struggle to find a suitable life partner, ignoring social barriers could provide a much larger pool of prospective partners. And if you do find a partner, it will likely make you happier and calmer. That’s what India needs to be, a happier and calmer place.”