India correspondent BBC
Every year, some 1,000 interfaith couples get in touch with a Delhi-based support group and seek help.
Hindu and Muslim couples usually approach Dhanak when their families deny them permission to marry. Aged between 20-30 years, the harried men and women want the group to talk to their families or help them seek legal assistance.
Among the couples who come to Dhanak, 52% are Hindu women planning to marry Muslim men; and 42% are Muslim women planning to marry Hindu men
“Both Hindu and Muslim families in India fiercely oppose interfaith marriages,” Asif Iqbal, founder of Dhanak, told me.
“They will stoop to any level to stop them. Parents even smear the reputation of their daughters to dissuade her lover’s family. The so-called ‘love-jihad’ is another weapon to discourage such relationships.”
The bogey of “love-jihad”, a term radical Hindu groups use to accuse Muslim men of converting Hindu women by marriage, has returned to haunt India’s interfaith relationships.
Last week, police in northern Uttar Pradesh state held a Muslim man for allegedly trying to convert a Hindu woman to Islam – he was the first to be arrested under a new anti-conversion law that targets love-jihad. At least four other states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party are planning similar laws. Party spokespeople say such laws are required to stop “deception, fraud and misrepresentation”.
“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,” says Charu Gupta, a historian at University of Delhi, who has researched the “myth of love jihad” .
Love remains difficult – and dangerous – in large swathes of India where patriarchy, kinship, religion, caste and family honour hold sway.
Yet young men and women across the divides are braving centuries of social resistance in villages and small towns. Helped by mobile phones, cheap data and social networking sites, they are meeting and falling in love in greater numbers than ever before.
They are breaking what writer Arundhati Roy, in her Booker-prize winning novel The God of Small Things, described as “love laws” that “lay down who should be loved…And how…And how much”.
Monogamous, arranged, heterosexual and same-community marriages are idealised – more than 90% of all marriages in India are arranged. Interfaith marriages are rare. One study put them at just over 2%. Many believe the spectre of love jihad is resurrected from time to time by Hindu groups for political gains.
That such strident campaigns against interfaith unions have a long and chequered history in India is well-documented.
In the backdrop of rising religious tensions in the 1920s and 1930s, Hindu nationalist groups in parts of northern India launched a campaign against “kidnapping” of Hindu women by Muslim men and demanded the recovery of their Hindu wives.
A Hindu group was set up in United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state) to prevent Muslims from allegedly kidnapping Hindu women. In 1924, a Muslim bureaucrat in the city of Kanpur was accused of “abducting and seducing” a Hindu girl and forcefully converting her. A Hindu group demanded the “recovery” of the woman from the bureaucrat’s house.
The abduction of Hindu women was even debated in parliament in colonial India. The Indian National Congress, now the main opposition party, passed a resolution saying that “women who have been abducted and forcibly married must be restored to their houses; mass conversions have no significance or validity and people must be given every opportunity to return to the life of their choice”.
When India was partitioned into two separate states in August 1947, one million died and 15 million were displaced as Muslims fled to Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs headed in the opposite direction. Women often bore the brunt of the violence, creating another deep fault-line.
In recent times Hindu nationalist groups have raised the bogey of “love jihad” ahead of elections to polarise voters. One instance was during local elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2014.
Prof Gupta says Hindu groups launched an “orchestrated propaganda campaign”, using posters, rumours and gossip, against the “supposed abductions and conversion of Hindu women by Muslim men, ranging from allegations of rape and forced marriage, to elopement, love, luring and conversion”.
Mouthpieces of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, carried cover stories on “love jihad” and urged people to raise the slogan “love for ever, love jihad never!”.
It was not only the stereotyping of the Muslim male that fed the narrative. There were rumours about a “global Islamist conspiracy” to lure Hindu women. It was alleged that Muslim men were receiving funds from abroad to purchase expensive clothes and cars and gifts and even posing as Hindus to woo Hindu women. A BJP spokesperson in Uttar Pradesh said this was “part of a global love jihad that targets vulnerable Hindu girls”. All this was an “attempt at political and religious mobilisation in the name of women”, according to Prof Gupta.
There are striking similarities between the ‘love jihad’ campaigns of the past and present, say scholars. But with time, the campaign has been more forceful as it has been led by the ruling BJP.
“Before Independence such campaigns were buried in the inside pages of newspaper. There were no mainstream parties or leaders stoking such tensions. Now it is a front-page subject and the state is critically involved in enforcing these laws. Social media and messaging services are being used to spread the message that Muslim men are forcibly converting Hindu women for marriage,” says Prof Gupta.
Many say conversions happen when couples opt for a religious marriage to “escape” India’s Special Marriage Act, which allows interfaith marriages only after a month’s notice to the authorities containing the couple’s personal details. So couples fear that their families will intervene to prevent the wedding.
Introducing laws to restrict choices consenting interfaith adults make about their partners now introduces a culture of fear which both parents and authorities can use to warn young people.
On the other hand, more and more men and women are also braving caste and religious divides to fall in love and break away from their families. Many are finding shelter in state-run safe-houses at a time when the state itself is trying to clamp down on such unions. “Love is complex and tough in India,” says Mr Iqbal.