NEEMA must be in her 30s and is in love with a Muslim boy whose name she is shy to reveal. She works in Delhi and has two apparent disadvantages. She is a Dalit woman, lowest in India’s caste pyramid, and she walks with a pronounced limp.
When she was in her early teens her grandmother, a housemaid in the neighbourhood, handed her over to my family for safekeeping and grooming. But, sooner than expected, Neema declared she was getting married — to a boy from her community, in her village in Partapgarh.
The marriage broke up within no time. She was beaten and abused by the man who she said was a vagabond and a drunkard.
Neema walked out of the marriage but now there is this Muslim boy from Allahabad who likes her and with whom she has a chat on the phone every day. They met in our ancestral village in Rae Bareli where Neema would routinely travel with my mother who loved her as her own child.
After my mother’s death recently, Neema has been distraught. She has lost her most eclectic anchor and her own family would not allow her to marry a Muslim boy.
If she defied them, she would be thrown out of her village and the community would disown her. She would be an outcaste, and don’t miss the irony. A Dalit girl battered by a man of her community to be declared an outcaste if she was to marry a Muslim.
Two facts are evident here. Large swathes of Muslims are getting to be the new untouchables in India, deemed lower in the social hierarchy than the Dalits. Their social isolation in Gujarat, for example, appears more or less complete.
The other point evident from Neema’s story is that Dalits, who under Bhim Rao Ambedkar strove for a separate identity from their caste Hindu tormentors, are being insidiously wooed or driven to ‘become’ Hindus. In fact, the shuddhi karan or purification has been a keystone for religious revivalism now afflicting India hugely.
The campaign is seen as a foil to the Dalits’ traditional turning to Islam, Christianity or Buddhism where they were at least offered the illusion of being less shunned.
A greater challenge to Hindu revivalism comes in this endeavour from Christian missionaries whose successful social work among India’s sizeable tribespeople the Hindu right-wing envies.
The brutal murder of an Australian missionary and his two sons, who were burnt in their jeep by a mob of Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists in the forests of Orissa in 1998, is a case in point.
Murderous anti-Christian violence in the Kandhamal district of Orissa subsequently bears witness to this jostling for inflating numbers, part of India’s tryst with adult franchise.
Neema’s story, of course, offers only part of the explanation for communal clashes in India.
From Shakespeare to Waris Shah, the syndrome describing communal rivalries as a deterrent to love is all too familiar. That it has been cleverly harnessed to the potent mix of Hindu revivalism is something of a paradox in a society that officially flaunts its trajectory as modern and inclusive.
All communal violence need not be necessarily linked to the social mixing of Hindu and Muslim boys and girls. Similar transgressions can and do occur across caste divides and are punished mercilessly by the village panchayat that is not averse to lynching the guilty as a widely accepted form of retribution.
The ongoing communal violence in Muzaffarnagar is complex. The region in western Uttar Pradesh sits on a vote-rich caste arithmetic, and often taps into the communal chance it offers with a high presence of Muslims. A Dalit-Muslim communal clash there is a just as high yield as a Dalit-Jat caste clash.
In this chaos, the Neema factor can be inserted all too conveniently. Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders have spoken of a conspiracy to “expand Muslim population, using Hindu girls as machines”.
It may seem outlandish but it seems to work well for the rumour-mills that drive riots. ‘Love Jihad’ is the new technique, says Chandra Mohan Sharma, the bespectacled joint general-secretary of the Meerut division of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an adjunct of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The so-called Love Jihad is a “difficult art”, picked up only after “madressah-conducted training”, Sharma told The Hindu in comments published on Wednesday.
“First, good-looking Muslim men are identified. They are given neutral names like Sonu and Raju.” These boys, Mr. Sharma told the paper, are then given jeans, T-shirts, mobiles, and bikes and taught to behave.
“They stand in front of schools and colleges and woo young Hindu girls. The first few times, our girls snub them.” But then, he says resignedly, they fall for it. “This jihad is about pyar se phasana — entrapment through love.”
Mr Sharma cites alleged police records. “Out of 100 girls who elope, 95 are Hindus who go with Muslim men. It is rare that Hindu boys get Muslim girls.”
This, the Hindutva leader says conclusively, is proof of a conspiracy to “expand the Muslim population, using Hindu girls as machines. We need to protect the honour of our daughters, bahu aur beti”.
The Hindu report cautioned against taking Mr Sharma lightly. He was at the mahapanchayat on Saturday. The protection of ‘our women’ was the common theme in many speeches, as video recordings of the event, shown to The Hindu, revealed. “There is now recognition that this event added to the agitational mood, added to the insecurity, and eventually led to clashes and violence,” the report says.
“On Aug 27, a Muslim boy teased a Hindu girl,” Mr Sharma claimed, “and that is the root of the tensions. Tell me, which brother can accept this?”
While this may now be a prevalent version of the trigger for the Muzaffarnagar violence, it is all too clear that ordinary lovers will continue to be ensnared in India’s vicious trap of caste and religious prejudices. Neema must find a way out.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.