16, Nov 2020 | Teesta Setalvad
“Love jihad” is now entrenched in the public landscape. The term is today wielded by an 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.
On October 6, 1998, two years and five months before the Taliban blew up the 6th-century Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, I interviewed the then Director-General of Police, Gujarat, C P Singh, after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal had launched a series of vicious attacks on minorities falsely alleging that inter-religious marriages had happened through abduction and use of force. The DGP told me that the “allegations of forced inter–religious marriages and conversions are entirely baseless in most cases”. He also explained that women often exercised their autonomous choice to marry and associate of their own free will. While the DGP was candid and forthright, in the following years (1998-2000), the state police set up a special cell to “investigate” inter-community marriages, an action directly violative of the fundamental rights of equality (Article 14), right to life with dignity (Article 21) and right to freedom of faith (Article 25).
On March 2, 2001, the orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar to demolish the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas, great symbols of Gandhara art and Buddhist faith condemned by the Taliban government as “idols”, inaugurated the weaponised use of the term jihad. 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 state machinery targeted couples who broke caste and community barriers and used the constitutional vision encompassed in the Special Marriages Act, 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 a trust called Navchetan trust, which as per his own claims “saved” 700 girls who had left their homes to marry outside their community. Many of these were girls from the Patel community, who married Hindu boys from other castes. A report in Frontline claimed that the organisation used intimidation and violence to forcibly end the marriages done outside the community. Police did not actively intervene to stop these criminal acts. Bhim Rao Ambedkar saw in inter-caste marriage a significant step to reduce caste prejudice, abolish untouchability and spread the values of liberty, equality and fraternity in society.
A recent Allahabad High Court order (Pooja @ Zoya vs State of Uttar Pradesh and Ors, October 8) has once again sparked a fuse. The order is brief and to the point. Unlike what has happened in scores of cases 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 and ruled that as an adult, she was free to stay with whom she chose. However, the court passed 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 jihad”. Both CMs symbolise a politics that is the epitome of violent supremacism where rights of minorities are suppressed. We can see before us another “legal” threat to trample over constitutional foundations of liberty, dignity, autonomy and freedom. The rest of us need to think hard and deep about how we should fight the battle.
Take the recent Tanishq advertisement that sentimentalised inter-community marriages in a distant aesthetic. It was removed when Hindu right-wing trolls launched their tirade. In the past, Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) had, in a similar vein, romanticised an inter-community union in the backdrop of the violence post-Babri Masjid demolition. The imagery in the film reinforced a stereotype, which has become the reality in India today — images of the burqa and ghunghat hover, ghost-like, in public minds, even while we barely recognise gender autonomy and other freedoms.
To reclaim the narrative, Indians need to reflect on what Ambedkar said about a caste-less, communal prejudice-free society.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 13, 2020 under the title ‘ The love jihad spectre’. The writer is editor, Communalism Combat.