The unfounded fear of ‘love jihad’

Published: September 29, 2017
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The writer is a development anthropologist. He teaches at George Washington University

The writer is a development anthropologist. He teaches at George Washington University

Despite enormous cultural similarities, the prevalence of fear and loathing between Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent is unfortunate enough across the border. This sad state of affairs is equally tragic when hatred is directed towards people of minority faiths within our own nation.

The very term ‘love jihad’ is an illustration of the myopic and xenophobic mentality which is increasingly gaining traction in India, with the ultra-nationalistic political climate prevailing in the country since the advent of the BJP into mainstream politics. Particularly, during the tenure of the Modi government, a growing sense of unease is plaguing the lives of Muslims in India.

The problematic handling of an instance of the conversion and marriage of a Hindu woman to a Muslim man has led to the threat of radicalisation to also become intertwined with the myth of ‘love jihad’. A Kerala court annulled the marriage of a 24-year-old educated girl to her colleague based on the alleged suspicion that this act was not an act of exercising free choice, but a more sinister plot hatched by an entity like the ISIS. When the woman’s husband approached the Indian Supreme Court to seek help, instead of overturning the lower court’s ruling, the apex court ordered an investigation into this matter by its premier agency created to combat terror. The Supreme Court’s reaction to this matter is disturbing, given the impressive history of judicial activism in supporting Indian women’s rights, and its assertive rulings against honour killings and other patriarchal customs that deny women the right to exercise their choice. The Supreme Court’s decision to send this matter for terrorism investigations is particularly problematic, since it fuels the fear that there is a connection between ‘love jihad’ and terrorism.

Despite ensuring freedom of religion in its constitution, India’s Freedom of Religion Acts or ‘anti-conversion’ laws are state-level statutes which aim to regulate religious conversions through apparently fraudulent means or through some form of enticement in six states (Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh).

The fear of Hindu conversion within post-colonial India is rooted in the lengthy Muslim reign of the Indian subcontinent, subsequent missionary activities in the region and the lingering communal divide. The idea of ‘love jihad’ made its first appearance within a communally charged atmosphere within states like Uttar Pradesh in the 1920s. The idea has now made a comeback not only in UP but also in other Indian states. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the rightwing organisation with affiliations to the BJP, has taken upon itself to revive the ‘love jihad’ campaign and even reconversions under the Ghar Vapsi campaign. A few years ago, the RSS even highlighted the potential threat of love jihad in cover stories of its English and Hindi language magazines. A Guardian story of one such anti-‘love jihad’ campaigner cites the alleged nefarious designs of ‘love jihadis’ of “using our [Hindu] daughters to breed children who are sent to madrasas, trained in Pakistan and turned into terrorists.” The Supreme Court’s current actions have unfortunately lent legitimacy to such claims. A plea has now been filed in the Supreme Court seeking recall of its order of investigating an alleged terrorism link to a case when there is little justification for such action, and instead respecting the choice of the Kerala woman to convert and marry the man of her choice. Let’s hope that better sense prevails and this plea is given heed.

Before I upset my Indian readers, and am subjected to a trail of comments pointing out my hypocrisy on this issue, let me add that what is happening in Pakistan today with the forced conversions of Hindus in Sindh or the persecution of Christian communities is no less troubling. I am not an apologist for the fact that Pakistan cannot even assure the rights of its minuscule minorities. In the case of India, however, the challenge is much bigger given the size of the Muslim population and that of other religious minorities.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2017.

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