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In Modi’s India, the ‘Love Jihad’ Myth Is Made Law

Menaka Guruswamy
The ruling Hindu nationalist party is using the state of Uttar Pradesh as a laboratory for its latest experiment in how far it can push anti-Muslim bigotry.
A civil rights activist holding a placard in India

Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images

A civil rights activist holding a placard protesting the Bharatiya Janata Party-inspired state laws criminalizing intermarriage between Muslim men and Hindu women, Bangalore, India, December 1, 2020

On December 2, Raina Gupta, a twenty-two-year-old chemist, and Mohammad Asif, a twenty-four-year-old pharmacist, were getting married in Lucknow, the capital of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Instead, they got arrested.

Gupta is a Hindu, Asif is a Muslim, but they had been a couple for a while and knew they wanted to be together. Their friends and family supported the decision and came together to celebrate their wedding. The couple decided to value their interfaith traditions by having a Hindu wedding, followed by a Muslim wedding. But, according to the Times of India, midway through the Hindu ceremony, the local police stormed the celebrations.

The police charged Gupta and Asif with violating the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020. This act, signed into law only at the end of November, is the brainchild of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and, in particular, Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, the fiery Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath.

The legislation prohibits conversion for the purpose of an inter-religious marriage and makes the parties liable to criminal prosecution. It is especially diabolical in its assumptions that all religious conversion is coerced or fraudulent and that Indians are so vulnerable to influence as to be unqualified to exercise free will. The law’s infantilizing attitude to women and lower-caste Indians in particular is starkly apparent in its discriminatory sentencing guidelines, which allow the punishment of a religious figure who performs the conversion with five years’ imprisonment in the case of a man’s being converted, but ten years’ incarceration if a woman or a lower-caste Indian is converted.

The law is written so broadly that in the case of Gupta and Asif, it made no difference to the police that the bride’s father said that there was no religious conversion for the marriage. As this immediate draconian enforcement shows, the lawmakers’ intent is to chill inter-faith relationships involving Muslims in general and penalize inter-communal marriage in particular.

The BJP has long promoted the notion that Muslim men were entrapping Hindu women by luring them into romantic relationships and then forcing them convert to Islam in order to marry—a conspiracy theory popularly known as “Love Jihad.” On February 4, 2020, G. Kishan Reddy, India’s minister of state for home affairs, responded to a question in Parliament by saying that “the term Love Jihad is not defined under extant law. No such case of Love Jihad had been reported by any of the central agencies.” Despite that admission, the minister signaled the government’s determination to push ahead on the issue by declaring that two cases of inter-faith marriage in the state of Kerala were being investigated. Since then, the BJP has waged a tireless propaganda campaign targeting Muslim men, which culminated in the legislation now enacted.

The Love Jihad polemicists are not bothered by marriages between Hindu men and Muslim women. Professor Charu Gupta, a historian at the University of Delhi who has studied Love Jihad in detail, told the BBC: “When a Hindu man marries a Muslim woman, it is always portrayed as romance and love by Hindu organisations, while when the reverse happens it is depicted as coercion.” This stems from an implicit understanding that Hindu men will control their Muslim wives’ reproductive capability and add to the growth rate of the Hindu population. It is also assumed that Muslim women will practice Hinduism. This asymmetry in Love Jihad mythology reveals that it is as much about demonizing Muslim men as it is about shoring up sexist stereotypes.

The big difference between the BJP of the past and its manifestation under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is that the party today is willing to use the law to promote “Hindutva,” an aggressively politicized version of Hindu identity. The BJP’s backing gives the Hindutva project legal sanction and legitimacy. For instance, in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled on the long-running dispute in Uttar Pradesh over the site in Ayodhya claimed by both the Ram Temple and the Babri Mosque by ordering the Hindu temple to be built. Prime Minister Modi and the Chief Minister Adityanath attended the foundation-laying ceremony in an event broadcast live on national television.

Uttar Pradesh’s new Unlawful Conversion Ordinance reveals the BJP’s future trajectory: using the law not only to legitimate the Hindutva project, but also to police Hindu purity. But it’s not just conversion for marriage that is at issue. Anyone who now wants to convert must petition the state sixty days in advance, and the priest performing the conversion must make it known thirty days beforehand; a judge is meanwhile tasked with investigating the “real intention” behind the conversion. It is as yet unclear whether discovering God or finding another faith liberating will be considered legitimate reasons. The law makes clear that anyone who converts to another religion in Uttar Pradesh without following this process will be punished. Although the Constitution of India envisages religious adherence as a matter solely of the individual citizen’s preference, this law infringes upon the constitutionally protected freedoms of conscience and religion.

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The BJP dominates the state legislature of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, with 200 million inhabitants, of which Muslims comprise some 40 million. It is now clear that the Hindu nationalist party, which also controls a majority of the state’s delegation to the federal parliament, is using Uttar Pradesh as a laboratory for a potential federal law. Four other BJP-ruled states have similar bills pending, making it clear that this is a national agenda for the party. And by many accounts, Chief Minister Adityanath is all but certain to succeed Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the party’s national leader.   

While Hindus constitute 80 percent of India, the country is also home to more than 140 million Muslims (or 14 percent of the population), among numerous other faith groups. Vilification specifically of India’s Muslim minority has been at the heart of the BJP’s political ideology and has driven its electoral appeal. The model the BJP is now deploying is textbook majoritarianism. Throughout their brutish history, majoritarian rulers have used the policing of love and marriage as a tool to shore up their own authority by turning a minority into a reviled, subordinate population. The race laws of Nazi Germany thus punished marriages between Jews and non-Jews. In apartheid South Africa, interracial relationships were punished under the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in 1949. Segregation in the American South was reinforced with just such a legal prohibition on “miscegenation,” which was finally found unconstitutional only in 1967 in the Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia.

Upon the country’s independence, in 1947, India chose a different path, undertaking reform of the law to ensure that Indians could marry across differences of caste and religion—something that was previously prohibited by traditional practices and beliefs. The Constitution protects freedom of conscience and the rights to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; it makes abundantly clear that India is not a Hindu nation-state. The anti-conversion law violates India’s entire constitutional project of equality before the law.

Granted, even after independence, India’s approach to marriage and free choice was complicated by culture and custom: to this day, more than 95 percent of Indians have arranged marriages and marry within their religion and caste. But in this century, more and more young Indians are stepping out of their family homes, choosing their own occupations and finding a marriage partner of their own preference. And this shift has registered in popular culture: today, some of Bollywood’s most high-profile leading men are Muslim men married to Hindu women, while the Netflix series Indian Matchmaking has recently offered a gently questioning, if tolerant, perspective on that institution. All of this threatens the BJP’s quest for a homogeneous, muscular Hindu nation state.

In the past few days, video recordings have surfaced showing two Muslim grooms being arrested at the marriage registrar’s offices, despite their Hindu brides stating clearly that they are of age, have not converted, and are marrying of their own free will. Meanwhile, the Lucknow couple, Raina Gupta and Mohammad Asif, have postponed their marriage, since they must now set about persuading the state that there is no conversion, coercion, or fraud involved—just the simple desire to consecrate their love in marriage. Whether they still face prosecution for that remains unclear. If the BJP has its way, soon it will be the state itself that arranges marriages.

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