Love and other conspiracies
A visceral fear of the invader is alive and well in India. The image of the savage conqueror has evolved from a barbaric Genghis Khan thundering down the Central Asian steppe, or a Muhammad of Ghor descending from the rugged Hindu Kush to establish Muslim rule in India in the 12th century. A distorted history, moulded to suit current political expediency, casts Genghis Khan, Turks, Afghans, Mongols and Mughals as mere plunderers, erasing the fact that many of them settled down in the subcontinent and enriched its culture, economy and politics in countless ways.
The reviled alien has now taken the shape of a suave smooth-talking Muslim dude with alluring ways and the promise of love. A spurious notion of ‘love jihad’ or the supposed entrapment of Hindu girls by Muslim youth, forcing them to convert after marriage and go on to produce Muslim children, has not only found currency in public discourse but, in the most populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and the central state of Madhya Pradesh (MP), has also criminalized love in the form of draconian laws.
Promulgated on 28 November 2020, amid loud protests from civil society, the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance lays down stringent penalties for forced religious conversion. Completely unfounded fears of ‘love jihad’, ‘mass conversion’ and other bogeys have armed the police and bureaucracy with sweeping powers to curb a non-existent problem. Over-zealous police, spurred by rightwing Hindu organizations, filed five cases within ten days of the Ordinance coming into force. Inter-faith couples and their families were harassed and detained in the midst of wedding festivities or illegally arrested in cases where the marriage had occurred before the Ordinance. Absurdly, even Muslim couples were mistakenly nabbed. Reports of torture and illegal confinement of Muslim bridegrooms have already surfaced. The ironically named Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill 2020, passed on 29 December, is a more draconian version of an earlier law, providing for stringent penalties.
The earliest mentions of ‘love jihad’ surfaced around 2007 in the southern Indian states of Kerala and Karnataka, where militant Hindu groups took upon themselves the task of preserving the purity of Hindu girls. It gained legitimacy a decade later during the much-publicized case of Hadiya (nee Akhila Ashokan), a 24-year-old Hindu student from Kerala who converted to Islam, donned the hijab and married a Muslim man. Hadiya’s contention that she had converted and married out of her own volition had few takers. That her parents would file a habeas corpus petition after she left home, and then claim that she had been forced to convert to Islam and hoodwinked into marriage, is in character with many protective Indian parents who believe it is their duty to control even adult daughters.
But for the Kerala High Court to annul the marriage and ‘hand’ Hadiya back to her parents was clearly judicial overreach and infantilization of an adult woman.
In March 2018, the Supreme Court upheld her freedom of choice and stated that there should be no interference in a consensual marriage between adults. Hadiya had told the court: ‘I want freedom. I don’t want to go back home. I want to go with my husband.’
However, the Court allowed a court-ordered investigation by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a counter-terror task force, to continue to try to uncover possible criminality involved in inter-faith marriages. The NIA found no evidence of ‘love jihad’ or forced conversion in the list of marriages in the police database, filed mostly by parents. Two years later, in February 2020, the Home Ministry admitted in Parliament: ‘The term “love jihad” is not defined under the extant laws. No such case of “love jihad” has been reported by any of the central agencies.’ But on 5 December 2020, Pinki, a newly wed Hindu 22-year-old, and her Muslim husband Rashid, went to register their marriage. Rashid was ‘handed over’ to the police by a rightwing group and arrested in Moradabad under the new Ordinance against Unlawful Conversion. Pinki protested: ‘Falling in love is not a crime, is it?’
Following Pinki’s statement, Rashid and his brother were released after spending two weeks in jail.
The conspiracy theory of ‘love jihad’ is built on the baseless fear that Hindu women are being converted in large numbers to other faiths – mainly Islam and, less so, Christianity – to further the grand scheme of reducing the numbers of Hindus in their own land. This argument has no leg to stand on. In the first place, even the little data available shows that the number of inter-faith marriages is minuscule – only 2.21 per cent. Fears that Muslims will outnumber Hindus in India are also completely unfounded, since Hindus make up 80 per cent of the Indian population. Between 1971 and 2011 Hindus added 77.4 per cent to India’s population while Muslims (who are 14.2 per cent of the population) added just 16.7 per cent.
Muslims generally have a higher fertility rate than Hindus, but it is well established that fertility rates decline as education, socio-economic status and a sense of security improves. So, Muslims in Kerala, for example, will have a lower fertility rate than Hindus in states where the level of education is lower, such as Uttar Pradesh. The National Family Health Survey also tells us that the fertility gap between Muslims and Hindus has narrowed, from 30.8 per cent in 2005 to 23.8 percent in 2015. There is no chance of Hindus being outnumbered in India. Propaganda about the beleaguered Hindus, supposedly ‘once the largest religious group in the world,’ is regularly churned out by Hindu extremist groups that propagate pseudo-scholarly theories, such as those by historical revisionist PN Oak. Among his wild claims: Islam and Christianity were both derived from Hinduism, and the Vatican City, Kaaba and Taj Mahal were originally Hindu temples.
Facts were scarce as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in India and Islamophobia spread like contagion. Muslims were portrayed on social media and in the mainstream press as irresponsible ‘super-spreaders’, deliberately infecting the Hindu population. In an atmosphere already polarized through discriminatory laws like the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, a besieged Muslim community was further attacked.
By May 2020 the misinformation-busting website Media Scanner had listed as many as 102 Islamophobic videos circulating on social media, replete with fake news. Some were old videos of actual happenings (worshippers at a mosque before the lockdown) shared as current videos ‘exposing’ how Muslims were flouting rules of social distancing and refusing to wear masks. There were calls to boycott Muslim vendors for allegedly spreading the virus through vegetables.
Such videos went viral via WhatsApp groups – major sources of misinformation in India. Particularly insidious were videos whipping up fear that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus, as an act of terror to unleash ‘corona-jihad’ on the Hindu population. One such cartoon depicted a suicide bomber with stereotypical Muslim attire and flak jacket (then) with coronavirus strapped to his chest (now). Fact-checking websites worked overtime to undo the damage, squashing rumours and providing verified information.
Which brings us to the question: who cares about facts? In the increasingly populist discourse the world over, the fringe has become the centre and rational voices have been relegated to the margins. With economies in freefall, soaring unemployment and inflation, identity politics and a yearning for a sense of belonging seem to trump reason and fuel an aggressive and monolithic nationalism. In this scenario of unshaken certainty, the conspiracy of ‘love jihad’ seems all too real and comforting, easier to believe than to accept that young people, particularly women, might want to choose their intimate partners, beyond the dictates of community, caste and religion.
Laxmi Murthy is a journalist based in Bengaluru, India.