If there is one word that has been used in a most creative fashion to spread prejudices and hate against Muslims in India, it is the word “jihad”.

Over the past few years, Hindutva groups have accused Muslims of waging “land jihad” to take over property, “organ jihad” to transplant non-Hindu body parts into Hindu bodies, “corona jihad” to spread the virus and “UPSC jihad” to fill the ranks of the civil services with Muslims.

Driving these conspiracy theories is the fear of Islamic expansionism. But the situation on the ground belies these delusions. Most Indian Muslims live in a state of socio-economic and political marginalisation. But despite this, Indian Muslims have faith in Indian democracy and the Constitution.There has not been any widespread unrest in the community leading to calls for “jihad” against another religious community or the Indian state.

Ironically, the word “jihad” in India is used most frequently by Hindutva groups. For instance, the “love jihad” conspiracy delusion was frequently used by the Sri Ram Sene group in Karnakata to claim that Muslim men were conspiring to marry Hindu women as a ploy to get them to convert to Islam.

It’s clear that the time has come to reclaim the concept from the Hindutava hate jihadis and spread love in a positive way.

Conflating Indian Muslims with global Islam

The first problem evident in the use of the term “jihad” is that it gets conflated with Muslim societies all across the world. Like with any other global religious group, there is a great deal of internal diversity between Muslim societies. Painting all of them with a single brush overlooks these differences.

For instance, an article in Swarajya
in September compared how ISIS uses Yazidi girls as sex slaves in contemporary times to how Muslim invaders in the medieval times in India committed violence on Hindus in the guise of showing “infidels” their place.

In The Print, the writer Ashwin Sanghi reiterated this argument, justifying a sense of Hindu victimhood that emerges from the violence done by Muslims invaders and rulers. He hypothesised that the problem lay in what he claimed was the fundamental contradiction of “Abrahamic” and “Dharmic” thought – the former, he believes, is expansionist while the latter is pluralist.

The problem with such a simplistic binary, of citing examples from different times and spaces of only Muslims rulers and armies, is that it completely misses the everyday life of common Muslims who have no means, resources or the desire to be expansionist (apart from the very few exceptions, 100 in 172 million, who go and join organisations like the ISIS).

They have meagre resources to even get by, and live in close association with different religious communities. They don’t think in terms of infidels and expansion. They follow very localised religious practices that bear no relation to the ideas of extremist groups or medieval rulers.

If these common people are falling in love with someone who happens to be from a different religion or caste, it isn’t because they have a supremacist agenda. They are just falling in love.

Of course, in a casteist society like ours, they are transcending boundaries of endogamy, offending dominant societal norms. Hence, couples who transcend such boundaries are pressured to split with the threat of violence and “honour killings”. But if they manage to persist, there is the pressure of conversion and assimilation of one into the other.

It bears repetition that no one should be forced to convert for love. It is also worth noting that the root cause for this coercion is not an expansionist agenda but an exclusionary one. All religions have certain exclusionary logic built in them to control kinship relationships. For instance, Islamic law does not allow interfaith marriages beyond Christians and Jews.

It is, of course, essential to reject this exclusionary logic and the need for instrumental conversion, whether that emerges from the logic of caste exclusion, or from patriarchal interpretations of religious laws in Islam.

Reclaiming love jihad

Love jihad, as it is being articulated in the new bills in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and other states, gives a sense that most trans-religious marriages lead to forced conversions and therefore must be banned. However, anti-conversion laws already exist in eight Indian states.

In that case, what is the purpose of these new proposed laws? As it has been argued by many feminists, it is primarily a way to control young women’s (and men’s) choices and decisions about whom they love and form relationships with. This is merely a new addition to the range of moral policing tactics that are done on women’s bodies and choices to subjugate their agency and stop the mixing of communities.

Just like anti-conversion laws are meant to undermine Article 25 of the Indian Constitution that guarantees religious freedom, “love jihad” laws are intended to restrict freedom of choice in matters of love and marriage to ensure that segregation between communities persists.

Thus, reclaiming love jihad will mean two things – one is to critique the need for instrumental conversion in trans-religion marriages, and at the same time support young people who are taking the bold decision to challenge the exclusionary norms of society and are loving beyond community lines.

Both these tasks require us to challenge the logic of segregation between various caste and religious communities in India. Any law that comes in the way of spreading love between communities is actually an encouraging anti-national and separatist spirit.

As important leaders of India’s freedom movement recognised, we can only be a real democracy when we are able to challenge all the segregations in our society and live in fraternity. BR Ambedkar called this process “social endosmosis”, which implied that India’s diverse social groups are so mixed that it isn’t easy to separate one from the other. Social endosmosis can occur only when we generate the social emotions of love and fraternity that transcend caste, religion, gender, sexuality, class, and language boundaries.

Similarly, Mohandas Gandhi too was convinced that only trans-caste marriages could address the segregations and exclusions in Indian society. He proclaimed in 1946 that only trans-caste marriages would be celebrated in his ashram, especially between savarnas and avarnas. When his own son Harilal converted to Islam, he did not not oppose his conversion per se, but he questioned this son’s motive for doing so. According to Gandhi, Harilal had not converted for the right reasons.

In his letters with Tolstoy, the main focus of their exchange was how its “only love that can rescue humanity from all ills”.

That explains why we need more love jihadis/sangharshis in the country. The jihad/sangharsh that I am talking about does not have an expansionist or exclusionary agenda, as certain politicians and media houses would have us believe. Instead love jihad/sangharsh could be a struggle underpinned with a democratic agenda – to spread love beyond all chasms in our society that challenges exclusions and supremacy.

Asim Siddiqui is an assistant professor of philosophy at Azim Premji University.