10, Nov 2020 | Teesta Setalvad
Love Jehad as Violent Metaphor
October 6, 1998 was a date, two years and five months before the Taliban blew up the 6th century Bamiyan Buddhas, majestic symbols of Gandhara art and the Buddhist faith, 130 kilometers north-west of Kabul in Afghanistan. On that day I interviewed the then Director General of Police, Gujarat, C.P. Singh, after a rabid Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal had launched a series of vicious attacks on minorities falsely alleging that inter-religious marriages happened through abduction and use of force. The DGP candidly told me (Communalism Combat, October 1998) that ‘Allegations of forced inter–religious marriages and conversions are entirely baseless in most cases’. He further explained that women often exercised their autonomous choice to marry and associate of their own free will. While the DGP was candid and forthright, it was in the years that followed (1998-2000) that the Gujarat police set up a special cell to ‘investigate’ inter-community marriages, an act of the state that is directly violative of the fundamental rights of equality before the law (article 14), right to life with dignity (article 21) and right to freedom of faith (article 25)
Two years and 124 days later, on March 2, 2001, the orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar after the Taliban government declared the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas as ‘idols’, embedded the weaponised use of the word jehad on the world landscape. Gifted by proponents of a violent and political Islam to other supremacists on paper, no amount of explaining what this Arabic term jehad really means, a ‘monumental and meritorious struggle or effort’, could thereafter make a difference.
In Gujarat, the model Hindu rashtra state, the police machinery and the courts were used month after month, year after year to target couples who broke caste and community barriers and used the Constitutional vision encompassed in the Special Marriages Act of 1954 to marry and co-habit. Babu Bajrangi, today convicted as core conspirator in the cold blooded and pre-planned massacre at Naroda Patiya in 2002, also ran trust called Navchetan trust, which as per his own claims ‘saved’ 700 girls who run out of their home and marry outside their community. Many of these were girls from the Patel caste who married other Hindu boys from another caste. What would Dr Bhimrao Ambdekar who saw as significant steps to reduce caste prejudice, abolish untouchability and spread the values of liberty, equality and fraternity in society, meaning “secularise” society have had to say? In a report of the Frontline magazine it was claimed that his organisation use intimidation and violence to forcibly end the marriages done outside the community. The force included kidnapping and abduction. Police in the states involved did not actively intervene, implement Constitutional law and fundamental rights to stop these criminal acts.
‘Love Jehad’ is entrenched in the public landscape. Now we have seen the way in which High Courts and even the Supreme Court have viewed inter-community marriages. The term is today embedded by a determinedly aggressive majoritarianism, woven into a dominant caste Hindu narrative of religious extremism, Islamophobia, and communal hatred that has crept into Indian courtroom discourse as well. We have had cases coming out of Kerala (2009, Sahan Sha A vs State of Kerala) that referred to ‘functioning of radical organisations pursuing activities of converting young girls of Hindu religion to Islam on the pretext of love’, the more popular case in 2017 Hadiya alias Akhila case, who converted to Islam and married Shafeen Jahan against her family’s wishes. In many of these rulings we see a conflict or conflation of the woman’s independence or autonomy, her choice, her freedom and a woman being constantly labelled as being either the property of the family or symbol of honour of the community.
The recent order of the Allahabad High Court dated October 8, 2020 (Pooja @ Zoya vs State of Uttar Pradesh and others) has again sparked a fuse. The Order is brief and to the point. Unlike what has happened in scores of matters in Gujarat, the Court asked the woman seven pointed questions and when it was determined that she was a major (Pooja alias Zoya, 19 years) who wished to stay with her husband, Shahwej, the Court dismissed the matter ruling that as an adult she was free to stay with whom she chose. However the Court passes this remark, “Though, under the Constitution, a citizen has the right to profess practise or propagate the religion of his / her choice but it is disconcerting that in matrimonial matters one party should change his / her faith to the other’s just for the sake of matrimony and nothing more.” The Single Bench drew a distinction between marriage and religion and said, “Marriage is one thing and religion quite another. If two citizens of India professing different religions wish to marry, it is open to them to do so under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, which is one of the earliest endeavours towards a uniform Civil Code.”
It is this order that has led to assertions by the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana that they would enact laws to prevent ‘love jehad.’ Both politicians symbolise a politics that is the epitome of violent supremacism where rights of minorities have been a violent target. As we see before us one more threat of another ‘legal’ move to trample on Constiututional foundations of liberty, dignity, autonomy and freedom, the rest of us Indians need to think hard and deep of where and how we pitch the battle.
Take the recent ad by the up market Tata-Titan jeweller Tanishq. Sentimentalising inter-community marriages in a far-away aesthetic, it was pulled down by the corporate house when sanghi trolls launched their tirade. To claim back the narrative Indians need to think through what Ambedkar meant about a caste-less, communal prejudice-free society. Mani Ratnam’s Bombay similarly romanticised am inter-community union after the bloody post babri Masjid demolition violence in India’s urbs prima. But the imagery was stereotypical as is the reality in India today as images of the burkha and ghunghat hover, ghost-like in public minds, even while we barely recognise gender autonomy and freedoms.
(A version of this article first appeared in the Kannada language daily, Sunday edition, Prajavani on November 8, 2020)