Power crisis, water shortage, farmer distress — voters in Maharashtra’s Akola district, which goes to the polls this month, have plenty of reasons to boot out their local legislator — Bharatiya Janata Party MP Govardhan Sharma. However, Sharma, who is contesting for a fifth term is hoping to sidetrack them with a different issue — love jihad — a term coined by right-wing groups to denote Muslim boys’ attempts to befriend Hindu girls, followed by offers of marriage and later the alleged forced conversion to Islam.
Sharma’s election speeches and interviews are infused with references to “us and them”. From a ban on shopping, using mobile phones, observing a strict dress code, Sharma is full of advice on how to prevent young Hindu girls from getting “trapped”. Sharma and his supporters from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, also a part of the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella of Hindu nationalist groups, claim to have rescued thousands of Hindu women from the clutches of the “other” over the last few years.
Sharma’s pronunciations are in line with speeches made by senior BJP leaders like Yogi Adityanath in the run up to the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh earlier this year. While the propaganda poisoned the atmosphere in a communally tense state, it did not help the party make any significant inroads. In fact, many within the BJP acknowledged that the love jihad issue was an ‘own-goal’. Since then senior leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been careful to avoid any references to love jihad, choosing instead to focus on economic development and good governance. However, the fact that it continues to surface shows that the issue is far from underground, and that party foot soldiers see in it a tool to polarize communities.
If it were true, the insidious conspiracy by Indian Muslims to seduce and convert Hindu girls may have been a great vote-getter for the BJP in the Maharashtra polls. Except that it wasn’t, and it likely won’t
The propaganda has been further undermined by an alleged victim of love jihad in Meerut — a case that right wing groups have harped much upon — recanting her earlier statement that she was kidnapped, gang-raped and forced to convert to Islam. The ‘victim’ recently told the police that she had eloped with a Muslim man, who she was later forced to implicate under family pressure. Her family has also admitted to being paid off by some right wing groups.
Incidents that Charu Gupta, a history professor at Delhi University, who has researched issues of gender and sexuality, show that while in the short term, the spectre of love jihad may have been raised with elections in mind, “In the long term, the uproar indicates the unease felt over the growing number of inter-religious marriages and women’s freedom. It amounts to complete control over the Hindu girls’ movements and reveals an anxiety over women making independent choices. Portrayal of Hindu women as victims of false love shows the need felt not so much to pro¬tect them, but to control them by restricting their movements. Women are duped by Hindu men as well as men of other religions, and each case needs to be dealt with individually and not regarded as some organised conspiracy”.
|BJP candidate Govardhan Sharma addresses a public meeting at Sinddhi Camp in Akola-Vidharbha|
The conspiracy theory finds great support especially on social media, and has led to a climate of fear and unease, even in urban areas. A number of couples in inter-religious marriages contacted for this article requested that they not be identified.
Filmmaker Natasha Badhwar, a Hindu married to a Muslim, and among the few who did not wish to keep her identity a secret believes that it an indication of how communal ideology has gained more mainstream ground. “It has been normalised by political parties seeking to get popular by inciting hate between communities.” Badhwar, who did not convert to Islam and is often targeted on social media for betraying her nation and community says “people come out and type abuse that they might have tempered in real life or not expressed to one’s face. We seem to have forgotten that many people marry each other because they fall in love and decide to live together as a family.”
“I would have thought there would be more acceptance of such relationships by now”, says Laila Ibrahim*, a Mumbai-based college teacher in her mid 40s who has been married to a Hindu for 16 years. Neither she nor her husband changed their religion, and their children follow both faiths. “I suddenly feel very Muslim. Since the build up to Modi becoming PM started sometime early last year, the note has turned shrill”, she says. “Suddenly it is OK to say offensive things which are not based on any historical fact. Personally I have seen a lot of families, Hindus and Muslims, have opened up to the idea of inter-faith marriages. But the larger political rhetoric is making them wary.”
|Adityanath has sparked controversy due to his strong Hindutva remarks made during campaigning in the past|
The political atmosphere was not charged when Mumbai-based Shabana Aslam,* 62, decided to marry a Muslim in 1978. However, she faced strong opposition from her conservative Gujarati Jain family. “My parents warned me that he would marry again and would force me to eat meat. We were scared that they would try to separate us, so we opted for a nikaah so we could marry quickly.” That meant converting to Islam and a change of name. “My in-laws were very accommodating about my food habits but to lose the name I was born with was a wrench —after all that was my identity.” When Aslam’s daughter chose to marry a Hindu, she and her fiancé had the support of both families and neither chose to convert.
Away from the rhetoric on campaign trails, the TV studio debates and social media, it is these stories that are gaining strength. There is a rise being seen in inter-religious marriages, says Dr Gupta. She cites Uttar Pradesh, a state she has extensively researched, to make her case. “Lawyers in Allahabad say that 10 years ago, they used to get three or four cases a month of inter-religious or inter-caste marriages. Now there are 30-40 cases in a day. Love really knows no boundaries and this kind of censorship will not work on the ground.”
*names have been changed to protect identities.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 19th, 2014