Interfaith relations and marriages are fairly common in a multicultural society such as India. Long history of shared neighbourhoods and women’s rights movements made such unions easier in the last few decades. However, religious majoritarianism and bigotry are posing unprecedented challenges to interfaith marriages and, most importantly, the agency of women.
India is a complex society with layers of identities as well as contradictions. There are hierarchies in Indian society based on constructs of caste, gender, religion and class. While social changes propelled by globalisation, urbanisation and better access to technology and communication have led to increasing social and, to some extent, inevitable inter-mingling and interfaith relations on many levels, patriarchal control over women’s bodies have remained firm. The boundaries of caste and religion exert strong regulation over intimate relationships including marriages.
In June 2021, a Sikh woman called Amandeep Kaur was summoned to a police station in the city of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh along with her father. They were not allowed to leave unless Amandeep filed a case against Usman Qureshi, with whom Amandeep was formerly in a relationship. Though she insisted that they were consensual partners, she was coerced into filing a case accusing him of converting her into Islam forcefully. She eventually gave in to the intimidation of the Hindu right-wing groups – Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad – whose members were present at the police station. Days later, on 27 June 2021, Qureshi was arrested; three months later, he was charged for rape, breach of trust, cheating and forgery. Three of the five charges were non-bailable.
Amandeep’s life has since been turned upside down. What also haunted her was the stigma she faced from her neighbours and co-workers, leaving her no option but to take a break from work. For the next six months, she did everything in her capacity and out of her meagre savings to prove that the charges against Qureshi were fabricated. Qureshi was finally granted bail by a local court after a couple of months.
Maya (name changed), who married Sameer and lived in Vadodara in Gujarat, suffered a similar ordeal. Maya was a Dalit Hindu and Sameer a Muslim. Their families had no objection to their marriage despite different religious identities and neither of them converted. Unfortunately, Sameer later started beating Maya up. Maya went to a local police station to complain about domestic violence and stated her desire to continue living with her husband. However, the police charged Sameer of forceful religious conversion and sexual exploitation. Appalled with the false allegations, Maya filed an affidavit in the court, stating that the police had fabricated the case against her husband. Sameer was granted bail after several months of arrest.
The stories of Amandeep and Maya are unfortunately not isolated. Hindu women who are in interfaith relationships are facing unprecedented challenges in India. Accounts point towards how Hindu right-wing vigilante groups hound and intimidate young couples and their families claiming to “rescue” Hindu women from “love jihad” – a conspiracy theory that accuses Muslim men of luring Hindu women into romantic relationships and marrying them to convert them into Islam. Though these claims are never backed by any evidence or government data, different states in India have passed new legislations to restrict interfaith marriages and arrest Muslim men such as Amandeep’s and Maya’s partners. It is not surprising that the leaders in power have not condemned such violence. Anti-conversion laws are becoming alarmingly prevalent in most Indian states and have the ideological support of the majority right government.
It is not uncommon in India that women across religions and castes face immense pressure to marry men within their caste or men chosen by the head of the families. Thus, there are heart-wrenching accounts of honour killings where the men of the family brutally kill the girl for marrying someone from a different caste. But these honour killings are different from the recent dilemma faced by women who are in interfaith relationships, as the latter marks an institutionalised form of restrictions initiated and backed by the state with the anti-conversion laws. Ironically, some of these laws that prohibit religious conversions and create obstacles in interfaith marriages are named “Freedom of Religion Act”.
For instance in Uttar Pradesh, according to the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, marriages between individuals from different religious communities will be declared null and void if they are found to be intended for converting the women to another religion. This offence carries a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine that ranges from Indian Rupee(INR) 15,000 to 50,000 (USD 180 to USD 600). Interfaith couples who wish to get married must inform the district magistrate two months in advance through written applications. Similar provisions exist in other anti-conversion laws operating in various states of India.
These anti-conversion laws have been weaponised to criminalise Muslim men in India. These laws along with other discriminatory regulations including the ones in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat come from supremacist ideologies, which believe that Hindus are legitimate citizens of India. There are consistent demands from Hindu right-wing groups to establish a country where Hindus are given special privileges and rights over Muslims and Christians who are considered “outsiders”. Though the Constitution of India guarantees the right to equality as well as the freedom of religion and belief to all citizens, there have been increasing hate crimes against Muslims in the forms of mob lynching and other physical attacks since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in Central India in 2014. In Uttar Pradesh alone, which is also ruled by the BJP, 79 cases were filed under the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion Act over a span of eight months in 2021. Additionally, 80 persons were imprisoned while 21 were on the run after being charged under the same Act in the same year. These figures reflect how this law was used to prosecute Muslim men en masse.
Hindu right wing on the rise
The Hindu right-wing vigilante groups existed since long but became more active and emboldened in targeting of couples, women and Muslim men after 2014. The fearless actions of these groups can be attributed to the impunity given to them by the state, as they are rarely brought to justice for their threats and even physical assaults under the pretext of defending women or Hindu culture. Besides impunity, the state at times gives right-wing groups the cover of legitimacy in targeting interfaith couples.
The Hindu right-wing groups are using the trope of “love jihad” to mobilise Hindu families against Muslim men. Kanak Jhala, leader of AntarRashtriya Hindu Parishad in Himmatnagar, Gujarat revealed that “in the last three years I have brought back 22 Hindu girls from the houses of the Muslims. That’s the power I yield and terror I have amongst the Muslims. They don’t dare to question me”. As he explained, they reached out to the parents of Hindu girls and assisted them in filing cases against Muslim boys. He also admitted that in some cases, the parents were reluctant to file a case or pursue the matter legally but he persuaded them into it. He noted that love jihad was an important means for his organisation – like other Hindu right-wing groups – to mobilise the Hindu communities.
Besides the women and their parents, the Hindu right-wing groups also put tremendous pressure on the police to send the women to their parents or to state institutions against their own will. These women have undergone torture such as unlawful confinement after being forcefully separated from their partners.
Undermining women’s agency
Apart from the discriminatory agenda of the new laws and the false propaganda of love jihad, these narratives succeed in undermining the agency of women. Under the Constitution of India, all citizens are equal before law and entitled to a life with dignity. It also promises the freedom to profess, practise and propagate any religion. But the love jihad propaganda seeks to infantilise women by implying that they are incapable of decision making or can easily fall prey to Muslim men. Women are supposed to have as much a right as men to privacy and choice of partners, but such misogynist narratives legitimised by the state have become tools to control women’s bodies and sexuality.
Rashid and his brother from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh were arrested when they reached the marriage registration office after the mother of his partner Pinki accused him of seducing her into marriage and converting her with a job offer. Pinki, who was pregnant at this point, was taken to a government shelter where she suffered a miscarriage. But she stood her ground and insisted in front of the magistrate that she married Rashid out of free will. In another case, Hadiya was illegally confined by her parents after she married Shafin Jahan. She had converted to Islam way before she married, but her father alleged that the marriage was Jahan’s conspiracy to convert Hadiya and recruit her into the terrorist organisation Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Kerala High Court annulled their marriage and the Supreme Court subsequently ordered the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to launch a probe into the alleged terror links. However, the NIA found no evidence to back the allegations and the courts ordered Hadiya’s parents to set her free. In both cases, Hindu right-wing organisations were active in supporting the women’s families to press charges on the husbands.
Why is love jihad significant?
The propaganda of love jihad, which is institutionalised by the state through anti-conversion laws, plays an important part in shaping India’s public discourse and feeding into the myths and stereotypes promoted by the Hindu right wing. They fuelled the myth that Muslims aim to overtake the Hindu population in India, though the statistics say otherwise. Other narratives strengthen the stereotype that Muslim men are virile predators with a large sexual appetite, thereby demonising them and the Muslim community as a whole.
Deeply intertwined with this politics of hatred is the suppression of women. The stigmatisation of interfaith relationships reinforces the patriarchal constructs of honour and control over the female body. Women are equal citizens under the Constitution of India, but such misogynistic narratives reduce them to mere objects or properties of men while fulfilling the nationalist agenda. Such divisive propaganda and laws are transiting India into a country where women’s rights are undermined and the peaceful coexistence of communities is fractured.