India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party has launched a legal campaign against “love jihad”, a conspiracy theory that Muslims are luring Hindu women into marriage, that is shrinking liberties in a country that has long celebrated endogamy. But in some quarters, opponents are choosing to resist the divisive narrative and give love a chance.
It was a vague project, mulled between three friends who agreed it was a great idea but were just too busy to get down to it.
For over a year, Niloufer Venkatraman, a writer and editor, and her friends – a married couple and fellow journalists – had been discussing some sort of project that would gather stories of Indian couples who had bridged societal divides.
Love and marriage outside religious and caste groups have long attracted censure in India, where arranged marriages within social units are the norm. Over the past few years however, the discourse on interfaith marriages has turned dangerously hostile, with hardline Hindu groups launching a campaign against “love jihad” – an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that Muslim men are luring Hindu brides in a bid to convert them to Islam and ultimately gain demographic domination.
Venkatraman – the daughter of a Hindu Brahmin father and Zoroastrian mother and married to a Christian – had been monitoring the situation with disquiet. In her conversations with Samar Harlankar and Priya Ramani – a well known Indian journalist duo based, like her, in Mumbai – Venkatraman toyed with the idea of setting up a website.
“We talked about telling real life stories in long form, just wonderful heartwarming love stories that are also a part of India, not just caste and religious marriages. There was no concrete plan for more than a year,” she explained.
But in mid-October, a major Indian jewellery brand owned by the Tata Group withdrew an advertisement featuring a Hindu-Muslim couple following a Hindu right-wing backlash. Opponents of the ad for the jewellery line “Ekatvam” – or “unity” in Hindi – accused the Tatas of promoting “love jihad” and threatened boycotts. The decision to withdraw the ad sparked howls of despair from Indians opposed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu majoritarian policies that target the country’s Muslim minority.
A video screengrab of the Tanishq jewellery advertisment celebrating Indian interfaith marriages, which was withdrawn in October 2020. © Video screengrab of the Tanishq ad
The time was right for digging out and jump-starting that project, Venkatraman and her friends decided. “We said let’s just do it, let’s do a less ambitious version and take it to Instagram with two posts,” she explained in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.
Within days, the India Love Project was born. Venkatraman wrote one of the first two posts on an Instagram page inviting others to share their stories of “love and marriage outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity and gender”.
The trio went back to their day jobs expecting a submission a week – if they were lucky.
But since its October 20 launch, the India Love Project has featured a new story every single day. Venkatraman says they now have a backlog of around 100 stories to be edited and posted. They’re also busy providing a service they didn’t quite anticipate: fielding desperate messages from couples seeking help and putting them in touch with NGOs offering legal and psychological services.
The India Love Project gathers real live stories of “love and marriage outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity and gender”. © Screengrab India Love Project/ Instagram
Those pleas for help are likely to increase as India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cracks down on marriages between Hindus and Muslims in a bid, critics say, to stem consensual interfaith marriages and deprive minorities – particularly Muslims and women – of fundamental liberties.
On December 29, lawmakers in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, which is controlled by the BJP, approved a law that criminalises forced religious conversion of brides. The Freedom of Religion Bill 2020 will be enacted once it receives approval from the state’s governor, a leading BJP member.
Protecting ‘the honour of Hindu women’
Madhya Pradesh is the second state to enact such legislation in as many months. In November, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, home to around 40 million Muslims, passed a law banning “unlawful religious conversions” through marriage.
While the laws do not mention the term “love jihad” or specify religious groups, Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath – a hardline Hindu monk widely viewed as Modi’s political successor – has never minced his words on the subject.
Weeks before the law was passed, Adityanath vowed to enact legislation banning “love jihad” – a term that lacks a legal definition since there’s no evidence the phenomenon exists. In a menacing local election campaign speech, the Hindu monk-minister vowed, “We will pass an effective law – those who hide their name and identity and play with the honour of our daughters and sisters, I am warning them in advance: If they don’t stop, their funerals will start.”
Adityanath, the founder of Hindu Yuva Vahini, a vigilante group implicated in the lynching of Muslims, has long been obsessed by relationships between Hindu women and Muslim men, and with protecting, as he sees it, the honour of Hindu women. In an undated video uploaded in 2014, Adityanath warned that, “If [Muslims] take one Hindu girl, we’ll take 100 Muslim girls. If they kill one Hindu, we’ll kill 100 Muslims,” prompting Amnesty International to issue a statement calling on the BJP chief minister to retract his past statements against Muslims.
An unforgettable day – in the worst way
The day Modi chose Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh chief minister is one many Indian supporters of secularism will never forget.
Prachi Pinglay-Plumber, a Hindu Brahmin married to a Muslim man, was on a beach in Mumbai on March 26, 2017, enjoying an evening walk with a friend, when the shock appointment was announced.
“The BJP had already won the most seats in the state elections, we knew that. But when the party announced that Yogi Adityanath was appointed Uttar Pradesh chief minister, my friend and I just went silent,” said Pinglay-Plumber. “It was as if something had happened in front of us, it felt very real. That was a marker. For me, it was the moment when I realised, okay, now we know where we’re headed.”
The post of chief minister of Uttar Pradesh is one of the most consequential in Indian politics, and is often viewed as a springboard for future prime ministers. As a journalist married to a fellow journalist, who happens to be Muslim, Pinglay-Plumber immediately understood the implications of the appointment as a harbinger of things to come.
More than three years later, as the Modi administration abandoned an ideologically moderate development agenda for Hindu supremacist populism – including citizenship laws that discriminate against Muslims – Pinglay-Plumber is beyond shock.
But the 41-year-old journalist, who is currently working on a podcast documentary on religious discrimination, is nonetheless alarmed by the new trend of BJP-controlled states adopting “love jihad” laws. In addition to Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the states of Haryana, Karnataka and Assam have also announced plans to enact similar anti-conversion laws.
“With Yogi Adityanath as chief minister, you’re almost anticipating something like this to happen. What has disappointed me is the way this is getting replicated in other states,” said Pinglay-Plumber.
Challenges in court, reality on the ground
Weeks after the law was passed in Uttar Pradesh, police began making arrests, mostly of Muslim men married to Hindu women whose families filed complaints accusing the husband of forced conversions. A number of cases have moved to the courts and at least two petitions questioning the constitutionality of the law have been filed in the country’s Supreme Court.
But while the legal challenges are welcome, activists note that no matter how the courts rule, the authorities have made their point. In a country plagued with an overwhelmed legal system, police brutality issues and high levels of intimidation, the message for Indians outside progressive urban elite circles is clear.
“They have made their point,” said Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak of Humanity, a New Delhi-based NGO that assists interfaith couples. “It’s clear that these cases won’t stand up in the courts. But the fear in society, they’ve already created that among families and friends of interfaith couples.”
Secular marriage law that undermines security
While the Indian Constitution affirms the right to life and liberty, societal pressures as well as legal hurdles pose a challenge for interfaith couples.
Most Indian marriages are conducted under religious personal laws, with the country’s diverse faith groups – including Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Zoroastrians – having their own personal marriage laws.
The right to a secular marriage is enshrined in the 1954 Special Marriage Act. But as the name implies, it’s so special, many Indians are unaware of the law’s existence.
The 1954 act is derived from a colonial era law, which stipulated that both partners had to renounce their religion to have a civil union. After India gained independence, lawmakers dropped the clause requiring parties to renounce their religion.
But critical clauses requiring one-month notice periods, publicly posting intent-to-marry notices, and residency requirements to register marriages remained unchanged.
They have proved to be stumbling blocks for the exercise of individual choice and liberty when it comes to love in the land of Bollywood romances.
“Conspicuous displays of [intent-to-marry] notices are picked up by fanatic groups who take it to families and say, ‘Look what your daughter is doing’,” explained Iqbal.
Under the law’s jurisdiction provisions, couples are required to provide proof of residence to local marriage officers. For interfaith couples facing threats and pressure from families and community groups, this can be risky.
“In practice, marriage officers ask for stupid things from couples such as witnesses from the residence area, they say police will be sent to verify addresses… It’s presumed that anybody marrying under the Special Marriage Act is going against the wishes of the family, the wishes of society and the wishes of the marriage officer because they’re from the same communities,” said Iqbal.
No choice please, we’re Indian
Endogamy, or marriage within a social unit, has been a norm in India that has adapted to the times, spawning business models for matchmakers, websites and ad supplements that feed off the country’s enduring embrace of arranged marriages.
Only 5 percent of Indian marriages are between people of different castes, according to the 2011-12 Indian Human Development Survey. Interfaith marriages are an even tinier fraction, constituting 2.2 percent of the total marriages, according to a 2005-06 survey.
Meanwhile the lines between “arranged” and “forced” marriages in India are blurred, a phenomenon that’s so widespread, it tends to get overlooked in a country hailed for lavish, colourful weddings. The Indian Human Development Survey, for instance, found only 5 percent of Indian women said they had sole control over choosing their husbands.
“In India, the right to choose is a big question. Religion and caste are just alibis to stop that,” explained Iqbal.
The ‘guardians of women’ are at work
Unlike civil marriages under secular law, religious marriages are quicker and require less bureaucracy for interfaith couples.
“When there’s an emergency, the couple has left home, or one of the partners, mostly women, are being forcefully married to someone from the community, then a religious marriage is easier, instant and a kind of assurance for couples since the administration and police only consider it a relationship if there’s a marriage certificate,” said Iqbal.
But the problem, Iqbal notes, is “any religious marriage is not possible between people of two different faiths. Both have to be of the same faith”.
That’s where the vitriolic discourse of conversions and “love jihad” allegations arise.
Despite high profile rants by the likes of Yogi Adityanath, experts say there is no evidence of any “love jihad” campaign.
The courts so far appear to agree. In the latest ruling squashing a forced conversion for marriage case, a court in Uttar Pradesh on December 28 ruled in favour of an interfaith couple, underlining that the woman is an adult who “wants to live with her husband” and had the “right to live life on her terms”. The Allahabad High Court bench also criticised a district magistrate for handing the woman over to child protection services without establishing the woman’s age.
While BJP-led state administrations invest time and resources drafting and approving new “freedom of religion” bills, they supply no proof of coerced conversions in interfaith marriages.
Venkatraman recalls being a panelist on a televised debate with a BJP representative. “He kept talking about cases of forced conversions and we kept saying show us the data. Nobody can show any data on this,” she said. “How many Indian girls are in forced marriages within their caste and nobody’s talking about it. Now the guardians of women have something to say about women exercising their basic freedom to choose who they want to marry.”
The patriarchy underscoring the new laws was explained by Charu Gupta, a Delhi University historian, in an interview with the BBC. “When a Hindu man marries a Muslim woman, it is always portrayed as romance and love by Hindu organisations, while when the reverse happens it is depicted as coercion,” she explained. The asymmetry, Gupta explained, was that the offspring of a Hindu man constitute a demographic gain for a community that constitutes around 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion-strong population.
All you need is love
Far from preventing forced conversions, the new laws have sparked a harassment spike against interfaith couples, according to news reports. Shortly after the law was passed in Uttar Pradesh, media reports ran footage of a woman being heckled by members of a hardline Hindu group for marrying a Muslim. The woman later alleged she suffered a miscarriage in custody.
The flood of discriminatory assaults against Muslims under Modi’s Hindutva – or Hindu nation – agenda has made life extremely tense for Muslims and their partners, a fact recognised in progressive circles. “My friends keep saying, ‘What are you doing in India? Why don’t you go to Canada?’ It pisses me off – why should I go? But I know where this is coming from and that they mean well,” said Pinglay-Plumber.
She also welcomes initiatives such as the Love India Project, which offer a different narrative of a diverse country where not everyone is susceptible to the government’s divisive agenda. “It’s a sweet thing to do,” said Pinglay-Plumber as her two-year-old son squealed excitedly in the background. “It’s a good thing something like this exists. Every little pushback, every little effort is important. It’s not easy to do it, but I do believe every little bit counts.”