The drafting committee of the Indian Constitution included two women members, Hansa Mehta and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. They proposed, for inclusion in the fundamental rights of the Constitution, the right of every woman to choose her spouse, or at least consent to the person to whom she is wed. This did not find support among most other members of the committee, all men. Therefore, this right was not included in the final draft of the Constitution placed before the constituent assembly.

Even seven decades later, it is sadly not unusual for adult women who dare to choose partners outside the boundaries of their religion or caste to be coerced by their families and their communities, supported by the police, courts and political leaders, to not follow their hearts but instead conform to their bigoted dictates. Their male partners – of stigmatised religions and castes – are charged with kidnapping, rape, and the new canard of “love jihad”, often jailed. If the couples resist, they may be murdered by the men in their own families, or lynched by furious mobs. The founding mothers of our Constitution, Hansa Mehta and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, had clearly sought to build a very different India.

A storm broke out in the valley of Kashmir recently because some adult Sikh Kashmiri women chose to marry Muslim men, and to convert to Islam. Sikh leaders of the Shiromani Akali Dal from Punjab raged that these were criminal cases of “love jihad”. The hate construction of Muslim men as sexual predators hunting down innocent and guileless Hindu and Sikh girls is not new: it dates back to the Partition riots, and earlier as well. But the term love jihad was coined this century, reportedly first by the Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council, claiming that Muslim young men, rich with Gulf money, were luring hapless Christian girls into marriage with the intention of converting them to Islam.

Cynical manipulation

This emotive hate construct was quickly adopted by the entire swathe of Hindutva organisations. Their claim was that good-looking Muslim boys are hand-picked for this form of jihad in madrassas. They are trained to entice Hindu girls into romantic relationships, and also equipped with the accessories that apparently make themselves more attractive to girls, such as motor cycles, smart phones and easy money. The Hindutva mythology is that there is no love in the hearts of the Muslim men who enter relationships with Hindu girls, only a cynical and cruel manipulation of the Hindu girls, entrapping them in fake romance culminating in their conversion to Islam and wedding; and that this loveless marriage only spells life-long suffering and cruelty for the Hindu women.

This fanciful hate propaganda assumes that the adult Hindu women who consent to these relationships are empty-headed and gullible, and have therefore to be rescued by the gallant masculine cadres of Hindutva organisations. All of this would be laughable if it was not so toxic and dangerous; it builds stereotypes of Muslim men as a shifty, manipulative, loveless sexual predators, and of Hindu women as weak victims with no agency, no discernment, and no right to choose who she wishes to spend her life with, and which religion she chooses to follow.

This stigmatises and – after the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh legislatures passed stringent laws against “coercive” inter-faith marriages and religious conversions – criminalises these relationships of romance and marriage between Muslim men and Hindu women.

It is instructive that in practice not all inter-faith marriages are targeted by this incendiary communal propaganda. If a Hindu man romances and marries a Muslim woman, this is not taboo. In Uttar Pradesh, where encouraged by the chief minister and senior police officers, the police with open and energetic support of militant Hindutva formation are investigating alliances of romance and marriage between Muslim men and Hindu women as crimes with heavy jail sentences if proved. But a Hindu man married to a Muslim woman was given police protection.

The recent Kashmir political storm has dragged Sikh women into the communal propaganda of the alleged dragnet of love jihad, after their Christian sisters in Kerala and Hindu sisters in many corners of the country. Sikh women were identified to be alleged victims of “love jihad”. One of these was an 18-year-old Sikh woman, Manmeet Kaur, who converted to Islam and drew close to a 29-year-old Muslim man Shahid Bhat. They secretly married – there are reportedly nikaah documents to prove this. But the police traced the couple, and drove them to the Srinagar district court to record their statements.

A large angry crowd, mostly of Sikh men, gathered outside the court, including Santpal Singh and Jaspal Singh, presidents of the Budgam and Srinagar District Gurudwara Committees. Santpal claimed that the young woman was “mentally unstable”, and that “(s)he is a Sikh. This is just a method of love jihad through which [religious] conversion is being carried out.” The crowd blocked the exit of the court for hours, demanding that the woman be “returned to the community” for “at least a week”, as though she was an inert stolen piece of property.

Police action

It is difficult to ascertain what statement Manmeet Kaur made in court, but reports suggest that she said both her conversion to Islam and her wedding with Bhat were voluntary. Bhat’s family also has affidavits signed by her to this effect.

Ultimately, when she emerged from the court, she was, according to news reports, not allowed to go with Bhat’s family. Instead she was “allegedly dragged and bundled into “a large white vehicle after dark”. Bhat was taken into police custody, where he remains until the time of writing.

Many accounts report that the local outrage against the inter-faith marriage was stirred by a Shiromani Akali Dal politician Manjinder Singh Sirsa, head of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee. Sirsa, who earlier was in the Bharatiya Janata Party, alleged that Manmeet Kaur’s alliance was an instance of love jihad. He claimed that falsely she was “abducted at gunpoint and married to a 60-year-old [Muslim] man”.

News came in later that, three days later, Manmeet Kaur was (re-)married to a Sikh man in a gurudwara in Pulwama in southern Kashmir. Sirsa valourised this remarriage (which is of questionable legality because she was not legally divorced from her first husband) as a decision taken by the Sikh community that gathered at the gurudwara. A man who spent his days and nights in the gurudwara helping with the langar and upkeep of the gurudwara, reportedly volunteered to marry her.

“You will be surprised at the blessings of god,” gushed Sirsa, that “sitting there, a Sikh of the Guru, one who day and evening serves God, one who is baptised, one who takes the name of god every day, stood up and said: ‘This is a matter of Sikhi [of the Sikh faith and community]. Whatever service you want, I am ready to offer’.”

Sirsa flew the day of her (re-)marriage, June 29, to Delhi, with her groom and parents. An enthusiastic flurry of television cameras greeted them when they arrived at the airport. He claimed that Manmeet Kaur had not entered into any earlier marriage (with Bhat), and that she voluntarily married the Sikh man. The same day, he boasted to a large gathering at a gurudwara in Delhi about the Sikh pride that he felt had surfaced in Kashmir.

“[In a] place like Srinagar where one does not know when bombs and bullets will go off… the city was brought to a halt,” he said. “The administration kneeled (sic.) and the SSP and IGP reached the spot. They said give us some time. We said take time today but we want an answer from the (Lt) Governor in yes or no.” He claimed that the Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha directed the administration “to do anything but this kind of lawlessness will not work here”. He called upon the Lieutenant Governor to pass an anti-conversion law on the lines passed in Uttar Pradesh to curb conversions and love jihad.

Although there is – as I have noted – no authoritative confirmation about what Manmeet Kaur said about her relationship with a Muslim man in the High Court, a second woman caught in the eye of the same storm, Danmeet Kaur, went public with a feisty selfie-video. Her parents had filed a complaint with the police charging her husband, 30-year-old Muzaffar, with abducting their daughter.

She denied this categorically in the video she circulated, in which she affirmed that she was an “adult and an educated girl”. She added, “I know my rights and I can differentiate between right and wrong”. She had left her parents’ home on June 6, asking them not to look for her. But within six hours of a police complaint filed by her parents, Danmeet Kaur said she was “captured” by the police and handed over to her parents. She testified that she voluntarily converted to Islam in 2012 and got married to her batch-mate Muzaffar in 2014, and had with her all the documents required to prove this. Still, her husband was held in the Srinagar Central Jail.

‘Political propaganda’

In the video, Danmeet Kaur said that after she was “returned” to her parents, they took her first to Jammu and from there to Punjab. There many organisations met her and tried to “brainwash” her into recording a video statement against her “legal husband” but she steadfastly refused. The organisations, Damneet Kaur claimed, warned her ominously that she could be killed or targeted by acid attacks. She deplored in her video “some people” trying to project her voluntary marriage and religious conversion as an “issue of [attacks on Kashmiri] minorities”, and declared that they “are indulging in propaganda for political reasons”.

Earlier, in May, another Sikh woman Viran Pal Lour, had approached the High Court seeking protection, saying she had married a Muslim man voluntarily in January, but they were living like nomads because her parents with the police were harassing the couple. The High Court upheld their right “to live their married life the way they like and protect their rights in terms of the guarantee as enshrined by the Constitution of India” and directed the police to ensure that her parents or anyone else should not be allowed to harass, attack, kidnap or harm the couple.

Meanwhile, politicians of all hues in Jammu and Kashmir, Delhi and Punjab leapt into the fray. Shiromani Akali Dal President Sukhbir Singh Badal expressed shock by the kidnapping and forced marriage of his “Sikh daughters”, specifically of Manmeet Kaur to an “elderly man of a different community in Srinagar”. He said it was he who had despatched Manjinder Singh Sirsa ji to “immediately rush there and ensure justice is delivered to the victim’s family.” BJP leaders sought a law against forced religious conversions on the lines enacted by BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, alleging that these conversions are occurring even in Punjab, where Sikh girls are being enticed to convert “with money and favours”. Even the J&K Congress publicly condemned the incident and demanded strong police action.

But many women from Jammu and Kashmir also went public with their disquiet with the ways the choice of marriage of these women born into Sikh families were handled by their families, by religious and political organisations, by courts and the police. Navneet Kaur, for instance, said, “As a Sikh woman myself and that too from Jammu and Kashmir, I am not in favour of [the marriage of Manmeet Kaur to a Sikh man hurriedly chosen by her parents]. If at all the girl was rescued, rather than giving her a breather, she was rushed like a cattle into another arranged agreement. Women are individuals too, they are not anyone’s commodity.”

Sandhya Gupta from Jammu, founder of a women’s club, Meri Pehchaan, asked, “Why wasn’t the woman allowed to speak for herself? We don’t know what has really happened. Now, you will see how this episode will be used by political parties to reap benefits. And what about the woman? We really don’t know. The time has come for women of Jammu and Kashmir to raise their voice. The episode has been very emotionally triggering for many women especially in the state”.

‘Community property’

Ifra Jan, a Muslim woman from Kashmir, said that women were being treated as “community property”. “Even in the 21st century, women still do not have agency and are treated as community property to be held on to or exchanged as per the wishes of the patriarch,”

she added. “No woman in Jammu and Kashmir would dare to exercise her choice because, as demonstrated by her case, the police and the courts will not stand by our fundamental rights and shall willingly, meekly and shamelessly bow down to the wishes of men.”

A group of writers, scholars, poets, artists and cultural workers (including this writer) issued a statement condemning “the recent action, under the direct command of these Sikh so-called community leaders, of abducting a young woman and marrying her off within twenty-four hours to a stranger, whose only qualification is that he is from her community” as “totally reprehensible”. It was “not only unlawful” but an act that “infantilises the legitimate choice made by an adult woman who voluntarily chose to opt for a way of life by converting her religion to her spouse’s”.

They added, “We believe that individual’s right to choice in friendship, love and marriage and the right to practice a religion of one’s belief, is an inalienable right which belongs equally to our women citizens. We unequivocally reject conspiracy theories such as ‘love jihad’ as divisive, built on fake news, and designed to foster hatred and suspicion between religious communities; and oppose strongly the demand of anti-conversion law in Kashmir or anywhere in the country. Such laws have only contributed to deepening communal fault lines, instilling fear among Muslims and made it tougher for interfaith couples to exercise their choice.”

They said the rash of anti-conversion laws were “glaringly communal… often used with the intent to criminalise young Muslim men who are in relationships with women of other faiths. The real victims of this law are women as the law infringes their constitutional right to choose a partner”.

The writers of this open letter offered their “solidarity to all individuals who seek to choose their own partners and way of life”, and pledged their “support to those being victimised by community leaders and families who seek to deny them autonomy in the name of preserving religious values”.

The time has come for a movement to complete the work of our founding mothers of the Constituent Assembly, Hansa Mehta and Rajkumari Amit Kaur, to install the right to choose her spouse as a fundamental right of all women, and to rise in defence of the practice of this right against the bigotry of families, communities, political parties and the state.

Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. His Twitter handle is @harsh_mander.