These astonishingly ill-considered new laws have resulted in immense pain
As hatred for Muslims becomes increasingly entrenched in Indian state policy, the latest atrocity is making it illegal to love them.
Earlier this month, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan (he is a senior leader of Narendra Modi’s BJP) put it this way: “Government belongs to everyone, all religions and castes. There is no discrimination, but if someone tries to do anything disgusting with our daughters, then I’ll break you. If someone plots religious conversion or does anything like love jihad, you will be destroyed.”
Chouhan’s braggadocio came after giant Uttar Pradesh (its population of 200 million is larger than Bangladesh) promulgated the Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance banning “unlawful conversion from one religion to another by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement, or by any other fraudulent means or by marriage.”
This extraordinary legislation defines “allurement” as “offer of any temptation” including “gratification” -- and designates “any aggrieved person” including “parents, brother, sister, or any other person who is related to him/her by blood, marriage or adoption” as “competent to lodge a First Information Report” that could lead directly to arrest and imprisonment.
Entirely predictably, these astonishingly ill-considered (and many argue, outright immoral) new laws have immediately resulted in immense pain. The very first couple detained -- Rashid and Pinki Ali of Moradabad -- reportedly suffered the miscarriage of their first child. Pinki told the BBC: “When my condition deteriorated, they took me to a hospital [on December 11]. After a blood test, I was admitted and they gave me injections, after which I started bleeding.” She said she lost the baby after another set of injections.
This is not the only case. In just over two weeks since the rules came into effect, several different interfaith weddings have been halted, with the bridegrooms -- always Muslim -- arrested and hauled away by the police. A few days ago in Kushnigar, 39-year-old Haider Ali was jailed -- and, he says, beaten with a leather belt while being tortured for hours -- on the mere suspicion that his 28-year-old bride Shabeela Khatoon was not originally Muslim (in fact, she was).
Instead of learning from this instant catastrophe, other BJP-ruled states are scheming to implement identical legislation. They have figured out that anxiety about Muslim men is an unbeatable political trump card, especially across the “cow belt” of North India where education and human development is abysmally low, even by poor regional standards.
That mindset is neatly encapsulated in Mihir Srivastava and Rahul Irani’s Love Jihadis: An Open-Minded Journey into the Heart of Western Uttar Pradesh, which spends some pages dwelling on Chetna Devi -- aka Yati Maa Chetnanand Saraswati -- the head of the Hindu revivalist organization Akhand Hindustan Morcha in Meerut.
She told the authors her “scientific theory” that “since Muslims as a community are relatively poor, they live in small houses without privacy. Young children, therefore, witness their parents in the act of sex very early on. Since they are initiated into sexual intimacy early, they are better at satisfying a woman’s desire. Therefore, if a Hindu girl experiences intimacy with a Muslim boy, she falls madly in love, and even the honour of her family becomes a secondary consideration.”
Srivastava and Irani responded, more or less: “So what?” To which Chetna said: “The Hindus are sleeping. The way things are these days, [love jihad] will only culminate in nar-shaghar or mass extermination.”
It should be noted these noxious prejudices are not exclusive to Hindus. Earlier this year, the Syro-Malabar Church -- which represents millions of adherents in Kerala -- officially complained that Christian women are being targeted for marriage and conversion by Muslim conspirators, and “are even being recruited to Islamic State (the IS terrorist group) through this.”
Happily, as you might expect from the wildly pluralistic social and cultural landscape of India, there have been innumerable objections, complaints, and acts of defiance against these regressive trends. One of the most poignant is the India Love Project on Instagram and Facebook, started up by veteran editors Niloufer Venkatraman, Priya Ramani, and Samar Halarnkar (the latter two are married to each other), to celebrate “love and marriage outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity, and gender.”
Venkatraman told me: “All around us we’re seeing this unacceptable and disheartening increase in the demonizing of interfaith marriages. As a product of an interfaith marriage myself -- and married to someone of another faith -- I feel that this is very personal. We, the offspring of interfaith marriages, exist. You cannot wish us away.”
She added: “The state already plays a significant role in our lives, but if it starts to legislate our choice of mate, aren’t we doomed? We often assume that there is progress in thought, and society becomes more open and accepting. But this is a huge move backwards, against everything we believe about our democracy, and our freedom. If young people in India today are increasingly hearing that you have to stick to your own kind, that non-mainstream relationships are illegitimate or wrong, and if it now becomes illegal too, then we’re surely headed towards losing all of our basic freedoms. It’s tragic.”
In just a few weeks, India Love Project has attracted almost 30,000 followers, and an unstoppable barrage of private messages and pleas for assistance. Ramani told me: “We were forced to evolve fast when couples began writing to us for help. Now we have a database of volunteer lawyers and counsellors, and we just tied up with the mental health team at The Listeners Collective (thelistenerscollective.org).”
Since ILP went live, Venkatraman says, she learned “that we are not alone in our thinking, and there are an overwhelming number of like-minded people. That hate is not the conversation this country wants to hear. I think it feels good for everyone to hear a story about how someone else acted from the heart.
“There is a substantial audience out there that is seeking alternative choices, and wants to challenge the mainstream narrative. I think where there was little hope, I’ve learnt to have hope.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.