The ‘Love Jihad’ Conspiracy Theory

Hindu extremists are determined to push an Islamophobic conspiracy theory across India – regardless of how many couples get hurt or killed in the process

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The ‘Love Jihad’ Conspiracy Theory
Activists hold placards during a demonstration condemning the decision of various Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led state governments in the country for the proposed passing of laws against “Love Jihad” in Bangalore on December 1, 2020/ Manjunath Kiran/ AFP/ Getty Images

Since the beginning of their relationship seven years ago, Dipali and Majeed (not their real names) were deeply aware that theirs was a doomed romance. She is 24, a jeans- and t-shirt-wearing adherent of Jainism; he is 27, a computer teacher from a conservative Sunni Muslim family, whose female relatives wear the burqa.

In the complex hierarchy of the Indian social order based on marital alliances between suitable families, the two are perched at opposite ends of the religious spectrum. Jainism is part of the Indic religions loosely originated from Hinduism, whereas Islam arrived in India later, via conquests.

Dipali and Majeed’s relationship had blossomed despite hostile public attention and patriarchal restrictions, but both had forebodings about formalizing their forbidden love through marriage.

In the waning days of March, a week before COVID-19 forced the country into a lockdown, they bet on their love and eloped. They left Rajgarh, their village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, and, with their faces covered, traveled overnight 500 miles to reach the capital city, New Delhi, for a Vedic-style wedding ceremony. Majeed took the lead, formally embracing Hinduism in a purification ritual called Shuddhi before the wedding. “We were finally getting to be together after all the pain and trouble. I didn’t mind converting,” he said.

For her part, Dipali recorded a video statement for the police, prominently displaying her shiny mangalsutra — black beads and gold neck piece worn by married Hindu women — affirming her consent. Neither was prepared, however, for the seismic waves that followed.

Back in Rajgarh, the village woke up to the rumor that a Muslim man had abducted a Hindu girl and forced her to convert. Radicals from a militant Hindu religious organization called Bajrang Dal picked up lathis (clubs) and flooded into Muslim neighborhoods, spouting abuse, shutting down shops and demanding the return of “our Hindu” daughter. Local newspapers framed the story as Muslims luring an innocent Hindu girl and warned Hindu families against hiring or dealing with Muslims. The community must be boycotted, they said, as punishment for “love jihad.”

Seven months later, the dust has far from settled on a union engulfed in the manufactured conspiracy of “love jihad” which has transcended its origin among members of Hindutva – a particularly virulent right-wing Hindu nationalist movement – and moved into mainstream legal and political discourse, rapidly gaining legitimacy in ruling circles, even as the proportion of interfaith marriages remains at less than 2.5 percent.

To Hindu extremists, “love jihad” is the alleged plan by Muslim men to seduce gullible Hindu girls for sexual exploitation and fraudulent marriages, in order to steal them away from their Hindu roots.

Now, lawmakers have vowed to fight the “menace.”

Several state governments ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are considering a “love jihad bill” to declare marriages like Dipali and Majeed’s null and void, with a penalty of five years imprisonment for “violators.”

Police squads in Uttar Pradesh, which in November became the first state to bring in anti-“love jihad” legislation, are now conducting surprise raids at wedding venues and registration offices where Hindu-Muslim interfaith couples are tying the knot, stopping ceremonies midway, arresting the bridegrooms, and registering criminal cases for conducting marriage under deceit for religious conversion.

The new law criminalizing religious conversion may or may not have been inspired by the Nuremberg Laws, but its provisions declaring marriage done solely for conversion as void, in essence to deter forceful conversion of Hindus to Islam, bears striking resemblance to the 1935 rules forbidding marriages between Jews and German citizens.

Conversions among Hindus, Muslims, and Christians have existed from the late colonial era to the present, but it is conversion from Hinduism to the minority faiths of Islam or Christianity that inflames majoritarian anxieties in post-independence India.

The enactment of the ordinance has given a legal cover to what was once deemed to be imaginary and outlandish theories of radical fringe Hindutva elements.

Historically, romantic relations and marriages between Hindus and Muslims have drawn communal ire and deep divisions, even lead to lethal riots. The term “love jihad,” however, is of recent vintage, first used in the 2009 judicial order of the Kerala High Court to describe Muslim boys pretending to fall in love with Hindu or Christian girls in an attempt to convert them. Hindutva organizations for whom fighting religious conversions is a raison d’etre quickly latched on to the catchy phrase to try and convince the Hindu majority of lurking dangers.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS — the ideological base of the BJP — and its affiliates like Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad have since carried out a concerted propaganda campaign, setting up 24-hour helplines; distributing pamphlets and brochures in schools, colleges and universities; encouraging parents of young Hindu girls to monitor their daughters to ensure they don’t get “lured” by Muslim men; and petitioning the government for a national anti-conversion law to “preserve the valuable treasure of Hindu girls.”

The concept of “love jihad” plays on age-old hostilities between the Hindus and Muslims. Right-wing organizations claim that, after Muslim conquerors arrived in India in the 8th century, they began to violate the three pillars of the Hindu faith – cows (revered as sacred), temples, and women – in order to rule the majority-Hindu society.

Followers are particularly agitated by Muhammad bin Qasim, the Arab commander who dethroned Raja Dahir, the last Hindu king of Sindh, just a few decades after the emergence of Islam and, according to their claims, forcibly converted some women to Islam.

An article in RSS’s weekly magazine Organizer described these historical roots to make the case for a nationwide law against what they call “fraudulent” marriages. “From Muhammad bin Qasim to Mahmud of Ghazni, Khilji to Akbar and Aurangzeb to Adil Shah of Bijapur, history denounces these Islamist rulers as the most perverted souls who perpetrated ghastly crimes against Hindu and non-Muslim women,” it said.

Speaking to Newlines, Vinod Bansal, Vishva Hindu Parishad’s national spokesperson, spoke at length about these themes and claims of a vast Muslim conspiracy to turn India into an Islamic state. But he also explained why right-wing groups are pushing so hard for a “love jihad” law: “By enacting a law in the name of ‘love jihad,’ we won’t have to convince people that such cases are not imaginary,” he said, “They will start believing it because of cases in court.”

The law has indeed become the battleground for this conspiracy theory. “The discourse of ‘love jihad’ was primarily produced by the judiciary, and it is now being sustained and contributed to by the judiciary as well,’’ said Hilal Ahmed, an associate professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Not only did a court case in Kerala first produce the term, but other court cases have given credence to it.

Of particular importance was a case in 2016 brought by a retired army officer, R.M. Ashokan, in the Kerala High Court alleging his daughter Akhila was the victim of such a marriage. He claimed she had been forcefully converted and could be sent to Syria to join ISIS; in fact, she had met her Muslim husband on a matrimonial website and converted of her own free will. Still, the court annulled the marriage as a sham.

After several rounds of petitions and adjournments, the Indian Supreme Court in March 2018 – two years after the start of the case – set aside the Kerala court’s order and restored the marriage, stating that an adult woman has the freedom to make her own marital choices and the courts cannot intervene in a consensual marriage.

Curiously, however, it also directed the National Investigation Agency, the country’s top taskforce dealing with terrorism-related crimes, to investigate forced conversions, strengthening the propaganda that “love jihad” might exist.

The government confirmed that “love jihad” is a myth. But this has not dissuaded Hindutva mobs from railing against interfaith marriages.

Like other state and police agencies, the National Investigation Agency eventually found no evidence of an organized conspiracy by Muslims to force conversion or recruit for terrorist organizations. The government confirmed that “love jihad” is a myth. But this has not dissuaded Hindutva mobs from railing against interfaith marriages.

Ahmed said this is because in the last decade the “love jihad” trope has helped Hindutva elements rediscover the potential of patriarchal values.

The judiciary’s flip-flops – like a judgement from the Allahabad High Court this September that held that conversions only for the sake of marriage were not valid — has boosted the campaign against “love jihad.” Since 2017, two states have required a month’s notice to the district magistrate before any conversion.

The freedom of religion guaranteed under Article 25 and the right to choose a partner guaranteed under Article 21 are two independent constitutional rights but can be exercised by the same person, M. R. Shamshad, a Supreme Court advocate, said.

What the right-wing Hindu organizations contend, he explained, is that “if you are exercising one right, you can’t exercise another.” The Indian Penal Code already provides mechanisms to deal with criminal offences over consent, including forced marriages, kidnapping, abduction, extortion for ransom, etc. A new law to curb “love jihad” and regulate a specific set of marriages, wherein Hindu women marry Muslim men, Shamshad said, would only unleash vigilantism under legal protection.

“Ultimately, issues of religious conversions and love cannot be regulated by law. If there is consent then the case is shut,” he said.

Shamshad noted that the BJP finds it convenient to paint every issue with religious color, blaming the outbreak of the pandemic or the spread of infections on “CoronaJihad,” or boycotting movies starring people deemed anti-government.

He posited that the BJP has tried to bring in several pieces of legislation linked to religion: A controversial Citizenship Act passed in December 2019 fast-tracks citizenship for persecuted religious minorities, except Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh; in a surprise move in August 2019 the government revoked Article 370, diluting the special status of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu & Kashmir; and in the month before that, the parliament outlawed the Islamic practice of instant divorce through the triple talak bill. In 2017, the courts suspended a ban on sale of cattle for slaughter meant to protect cows and prevent consumption of beef that had resulted in several horrific lynchings of Muslim men accused of possessing cow meat.

“There is no doubt that such legislation singles out the Muslim population, attacking every detail from what we eat to where we live and who we love and how we marry and leading to excessive criminalization. Reporting of ordinary crimes is changing if the rapist or murderer is a Muslim.” Shamshad warned, however, that although the laws target Muslims, they also curtail the liberties of wider society.

In their campaign to curb interfaith marriages, Hindutva elements have turned to the Special Marriage Act of 1935, which requires interfaith couples to declare their intent 30 days prior to a marriage. During this period, the couple’s application is put up on public display for scrutiny at the marriage registration office.

This has allowed Hindu nationalists to obtain hundreds of marriage applications from interfaith and inter-caste couples, including their personal details, and post them on social media as proof of “love jihad.” The law is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court, in order to protect interfaith couples from harassment, humiliation, assault, or death.

According to Jyoti Punwani, a veteran journalist who has reported extensively on communal fault lines and gender issues, “the theory of ‘love jihad’ is motivated both by patriarchy and communalism. … The image of Hindu women having a mind of their own, and taking decisions on who to love and who to marry scares them,” Punwani said.

Although inter-religious and inter-caste relations frequently spur honor killings, there are many who take the plunge without raising the question of conversions.

In 1985, when the Hindutva movement was in its nascent stage, Sabiha, a devout practicing Muslim from eastern Uttar Pradesh, eloped and married her husband Sharad More, a Hindu from the western coast of Maharashtra, without either of them converting.

An associate professor at Gandhi Shikshan Bhavan college in Mumbai, Sabiha said that even though both families never accepted their marriage, she and her husband happily respected each other’s faith. She would visit temples in the same spirit of worship, reflexively chanting the opening lines of Surah Al Fatiha, her head bowed in prayer. “I would tell Ganesha that I’m sure he understands my Arabic prayer, after all he is a God just like Allah.”

Interfaith love stories like these, which happen on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide, make no difference to the beliefs of Hindutva supporters, who, Punwani said, “simply cannot accept the premise that marriages between Hindus and Muslims can take place voluntarily without forced conversion.” The “love jihad” literature propagates the idea of the nubile Hindu women being brainwashed and honey-trapped by the hyper-masculine Muslim men and the women who aid them in making the first contact. It assumes that Hindu women are naive and therefore in need of protection and restrictions.

Inevitably, “love jihad” has been turned into a state-sanctioned tool to tighten patriarchal norms.

Inevitably, “love jihad” has been turned into a state-sanctioned tool to tighten patriarchal norms under the pretext of protecting the honor of Hindu women and criminalize the Muslim population. By enforcing legal mechanisms, the BJP has willed into existence a new category of crime out of the once-freakish theories of the Hindutva movement.

Ahmed from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies argued that the controversy is not per se anti-Muslim, but part of majoritarian politics meant to protect and nurture a Hindu constituency. “Hindutva forces are no longer interested in declaring India a Hindu nation; rather, the aim is to strengthen Hindutva hegemony by amending the existing legal-constitutional framework,” he said.

He explained this through what he called “Hindutva constitutionalism,” based on three underlying factors: legal technicalities to articulate political positions, a strong assertion of Hindu victimhood, and a one-nation constitution as the foundational principle of its politics. According to this line of reasoning, he says, the Hindutva forces project Hindus as eternal victims of “love jihad” who need judicial protection.

As Hindutva hegemony marches on and new arbitrary laws manifest under BJP rule giving credence to anti-Muslim sentiment, interfaith couples like Dipali and Majeed are getting caught in the dragnet, forced into hiding, their marital fate at the mercy of the state.

Although they are now living in hiding as a married couple, they are terrified of being discovered by the radicals or the police. Their customary ceremony has no legal sanction, and officiating it would risk exposing them as a “love jihad” case. As the only way to cast away suspicions, Dipali, who continues to practice Jainism, has adopted a new pseudonym. “I call myself by a Muslim name, that way people don’t question me,’’ she says stoically.

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