Amidst the numerous crises India is facing, five Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states have decided that one of their top priorities is to pass a law based on a Hindutva conspiracy theory aimed at preventing inter-faith marriage.
The leaders of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Assam have promised to introduced strict legal provisions to prevent “love jihad”, a conspiritorial delusion that imagines a vast, country-wide plot by Muslim men to dupe unsuspecting Hindu women into marriage with the aim of converting them to Islam.
Every aspect of these laws and the conversation around them is deeply problematic.
The idea of “love jihad” itself comes from what was once a fringe conspiracy theory among Christian and Hindu groups in Kerala that spread around the country thanks to misinformation in Hindutva networks, often picking stray incidents and weaving them into a grand narrative. The theory plays into older right-wing Hindu anxieties about the virility of Muslim men, the purported susceptibility of Hindu women and baseless fears about wholesale demographic change that will result from inter-faith marriages.
“It is impossible for Hindu groups to conceive that Hindu women can voluntarily elope or convert,” noted historian Charu Gupta, whose research unearthed similar conspiracy theories North India in the 1920s. “Thus every romance, love, elopement and marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man is rewritten by Hindu organisations as forcible conversion. Hindu organisations are deeply troubled with fantasies about possible relations between Hindu women and Muslim men. Portrayal of Hindu women as victims of false love shows the need felt not so much to protect them but to discipline and control them.”
In fact, BJP leaders have made it clear that their problem is ultimately with inter-faith marriage itself, rather than any percieved criminal activity. That is a position that is both bigoted and anti-constitutional, yet becoming remarkably acceptable in the mainstream.
Besides, multiple official bodies have found no evidence of any grand plot to secretly convert Hindu women. In February, for example, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs told the Lok Sabha that no “case of ‘love jihad’ has been reported by any of the central agencies”. Investigations by the National Investigation Agency, the Karnataka Criminal Investigation Department, the Uttar Pradesh Special Investigation Team and others have turned up no evidence for this alleged conspiracy. The National Commission for Women maintains no data about ‘love jihad”.
In the most famous alleged case, involving a 24-year-old woman named Hadiya who had been born into a Hindu family, the Kerala High Court even annulled her marriage with a Muslim man, despite the woman insisting that it was a decision she had made of her own free choice. In March 2018, the Supreme Court ultimately overturned that decision. In its judgment, it raised questions about whether the courts can intervene in consensual relationships between consenting adults.
The underlying excuse for this sudden spurt of “love jihad” legislation exposes its hollowness. The idea seemed to emerge from Uttar Pradesh, where Chief Minister Adityanath – who was in the past accused of communal hate speech and instigating riots – referred to an Allahabad High Court judgment as the basis for a new law that would criminalise “love jihad”.
It isn’t surprising that Adityanath intentionally misread the court’s conclusion to fan this communal conspiracy theory. The case itself actually involved a Muslim woman converting to Hinduism for the sake of marriage. The High Court had been called on to provide protection to the couple, who said they feared violence as a result of their relationship.
Instead of doing so, the High Court decried the practice of converting just for the sake of marriage, saying this was illegal, using an interpretation of an earlier Supreme Court judgment that lawyers have said is a misreading.
The verdict ventures into troublesome territory by suggesting that courts have the power to decide whether someone is converting only for marriage, or because they genuinely want to change their religion. How can the courts actually determine this?
Moreover, if Adityanath and the BJP states are so worked up about people converting just for the sake of marriage, there is a simple process that already exists within Indian law to allow inter-faith marriages: the Special Marriage Act. On paper, the Special Marriage Act is supposed to provide for such unions without requiring either party to convert and allowing the state, through a magistrate, to solemnise the partnership instead of a religious priest.
But in most states, such as Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh, the actual process of getting married under the Special Marriage Act is often convoluted. It is filled with requirements that seem to be intended to get in the way of the such marriages – such as sending notices to the families of the couple and posting public notices that attract the attention of right-wing mobs.
If the aim of the new laws is to stop people from converting just for marriage, which was the grouse raised by the Allahabad High Court, the simplest way would be to remove the obstacles in the way of the Special Marriage Act and make it more convenient for inter-faith couples.
The state’s preference to instead introduce a convoluted process that would require a court to certify someone’s decision to convert – laws that already do exist in many parts of India – are a reflection of the fact that the real aim is to prevent inter-faith marriage by any means. This moves even further to endorse bigotry in Indian mainstream thinking.