In Rajasthan, a case of “love jihad” cuts stereotypes of caste and party allegiances

The bogey of “love jihad” is a favoured trope of right-wing Hindu nationalism and India has witnessed numerous protests against love jihad since the BJP came to power at the centre. However, a recent case of alleged love jihad in Rajasthan shows that the narrative has become far more complex than the simple binary of Hindu-Muslim relations. SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images
26 July, 2019

At around 8 am on 11 June, Kayum Khan stepped out of his house in Bhadarna, a working-class neighbourhood in the northern outskirts of Jaipur. Barely fifty meters down the road, a middle-aged woman named Indra Devi approached Kayum and started screaming, “Who do you think you are? You think you can send our girl to the police?” She grabbed his collar and slapped him. Kayum was momentarily disoriented, but noticed that a young girl appeared from behind a parked truck and yelled, “Save me from him.” The girl pointed towards Kayum and said, “He is molesting me.” Simultaneously, a well-built young man—Indra’s son Indrapal Choudhury—charged at Kayum, punched him in the face and began to beat him. Within minutes, an old couple, Rajkumar Choudhury and his wife Saroj Devi, joined in. The four kicked and punched the prone Kayum. A crowd gathered and tried to save Kayum from the assailants. The attackers, a Jat family who also live in Bhadarna, told the crowd that Kayum had molested Saloni, the young 17-year-old girl, who watched the entire assault from the sidelines.

Kayum’s family and the Choudhurys reside in the same locality. In 2016, Kayum first met Shveta, the elder daughter of Rajkumar and Saroj. Soon after, the couple fell in love and in 2018, decided to get married. But there was intense opposition to the match from the Choudhury family who beat her up when they heard the news. Her parents continued to harass her over the relationship and on 7 June this year, Shveta sought help from the police when her father threatened to kill her. The police sent her to Shakti Stambh, a short-stay home for women in distress. Four days later, the Choudhurys attacked Kayum. Akhtar Khan, Kayum’s father, told me that the Choudhurys “have been angry with us for some time ... They felt he was responsible for sending her to a women’s shelter.”

On the day of the attack, a short while after the assault began, police officials from Jaipur’s Vishwakarma police station—the incident took place in their jurisdiction—were called by the locals to break-up the altercation. The police sent a badly bruised Kayum to the Hari Baksh Kanwatia Hospital in Jaipur’s Shastri Nagar locality. He gave an oral statement to the police at the hospital, based on which a first information report was filed against the Choudhurys. While Kayum was in the hospital, a mob of around hundred people, comprising members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal—both organisations are affiliated to the Sangh Parivar—and the Karni Sena, a group which represents the Rajput community and is known for its violent tactics, surrounded the police station and demanded that a case of molestation be filed against Kayum. They shouted slogans against “love jihad”—a conspiracy theory usually propagated by right-wing Hindu outfits who claim that Muslim men lure Hindu women and convert them to Islam. At least two leaders of the Congress party—Sandeep Jakhar, a youth leader, and Sitaram Agarwal, a Congress candidate from the Vidyadhar Nagar assembly constituency—were also part of the mob.

The police charged Kayum under six sections of the Indian Penal Code that deal with sexual assault, and four sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. Notably, the FIR against Kayum was filed before the FIR against the Choudhury family. Kayum was arrested the very next day and was in jail till 20 July, when his second bail plea was accepted. In sharp contrast, none of the Choudhury family members have been arrested so far and the charges against them—under sections 323, 143, 341 of the IPC—are minor and bailable.

Soon after the FIR against Kayum was filed, Jakhar put up a Facebook post—he called it a “press note”—which said that he and a number of other leaders had staged a demonstration against love jihad. The post also threatened that the protests would be escalated if Kayum was not prosecuted.

On 1 July, the Peoples’ Union of Civil Liberties, a human-rights organisation, released a statement noting that “the assaulters built a narrative of love jihad and the police allowed them to file a false case of sexual harassment of a minor girl.” Additionally, in response to the FIR against Kayum, Shveta wrote a letter from the shelter, which said that, “My sister Saloni is a minor and is being used by my family to file a false POCSO case against Kayum.” The letter also mentioned that “Bajrang Dal goons” had been visiting the Choudhury house for the past year and “told my father anti-Muslim things, which worsened the situation at home.”

The Khan family is no stranger to the intimidation tactics of the Bajrang Dal. In 2014, Kayum’s younger brother, Momin, was in college where he met a fellow student, Asha Saini. They fell in love. The young couple was contemplating marriage, but ran up against the communal conundrum: “She’s a Hindu and I am a Muslim. How would our families react?” Momin told me. In 2016, Asha’s family—the Sainis live close to Bhadarna—found out about Momin and tried to forcibly dissuade her. Momin told me that groups of men from the Bajrang Dal visited the Khans to tell them to “rein in their youngest son.” Between August 2018 and December 2018, the Bajrang Dal started visiting the Saini family also. Momin told me that in December that year, Asha’s family beat her up mercilessly. On 20 December, she approached the police, who sent Asha to Shakti Stambh. In May 2019, Asha and Momin got married in a civil ceremony under the Special Marriages Act and are currently residing at an undisclosed location as they fear reprisals from the Sainis and the Bajrang Dal.

The marriage of Akhtar’s youngest son to a Hindu girl riled up some people in the neighbourhood. The Khans are the only Muslim family in a Hindu locality. There were murmurs of love jihad and whispers that the family was paid Rs 25 lakh for the same. “People would ask me if I had indeed got the money. It was mostly light hearted,” Akhtar told me. But that changed after Kayum was assaulted. Suddenly, the family began to encounter more hostility.

The Khans and the Choudhurys are not native to Rajasthan. The Khans are from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and migrated to Jaipur to flee the riots that ensued after the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992. The Choudhurys belong to a Hindu Jat community from Haryana. Both had co-existed in a Gujjar-dominated industrial neighbourhood. Akhtar, who is illiterate, opened up a small store selling soap, biscuits, gutkha, and soft drinks and cobbled together money to educate his three children. Kayum studied law and had applied for a bar-council license, his daughter Gulshan Khatoon has a bachelor’s degree and runs a social-media cookery channel, while Momin has a bachelors degree. Khan had purchased a small plot of land on which he built a house and also managed a scrap warehouse in partnership with a neighbour, Lala Gujjar.

A few days before the assault on Kayum, Akhtar’s warehouse burnt down in a fire. The incident happened on Eid. “I was at the local mosque offering namaz when I got a call,” Akhtar told me. “I rushed and found the half the godown on fire.” “Papa’s heart was broken after that,” Gulshan told me. Akhtar does not want to live in Bhadarna anymore. “I just want to sell the house and leave,” he said. But the locals, sensing a distress sale, are unwilling to pay the market price. Akhtar also fears his property may be occupied if he leaves. After the attack on Kayum, both father and daughter are terrified. Gulshan has stopped attending tuition classes—“I was preparing for competitive exams”—and minds the store. Akhtar steps out only to buy provisions and attend to the court and police cases relating to Kayum.

However, Lala told me that no one in his community thinks ill of Akhtar and his family. “Some people are hostile, but they are outsiders.” Harkesh Bugalia, a social activist and political observer, visited the neighbourhood in the aftermath of Kayum’s assault to assess the situation. He echoed Lala’s assertion and told me, “As long as the local Gujjars are with the Khan family, no one can harm them.” In addition, Bhadarna is an industrial area with a sizeable migrant population, which makes it difficult for groups like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal to entrench themselves. Bugalia, who hails from the Jat community, told me that since the Choudhurys are from Haryana, they do not have significant local support. “Even the Jats are largely indifferent because they”—the Choudhurys—“are lower middle class and politically unconnected,” he said. Referring to the mob that surrounded the police station, he added, “Rajputs are traditional BJP voters and that’s why they went to the police station to communalise the incident”.

The presence of Congress leaders in the mob peddling the love-jihad narrative underlines the complex intersection of caste, religion and politics in the region. A member of the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee confirmed to me that Jakhar is a Congress youth leader. When I asked to meet him, Jakhar invited me to the official bungalow of Pratap Singh Khachariyawas, a Congress politician and a cabinet minister. When I asked Jakhar why he, as a Congressman, was part of a right-wing mob he replied, “The Choudhurys are from my caste and approached me to help the minor who got molested.” According to Jakhar, “The younger brother brainwashed a Saini girl and married her, while the elder one tried the same with a Jat girl. Both of them tried to do love jihad.” When I asked him if his party’s ideology supports the notion of love jihad, he said, “I am from the Congress, but this is not about ideology.”

I also met Kiran Shekhawat, another mob participant at the Vishwakarma police station. Shekhawat, a former member of the Karni Sena, told me that she “went to Shakti Stambh to meet Shveta and to tell her that we are Hindus and they are Muslims. The two communities are different.” Shekhawat had visited Shveta just a few days before Kayum was attacked. “Love jihad is a mission for Muhammadans. They get money from the Gulf to trap Hindu girls. Even their moulvis in India use zakat money for this purpose,” she added. She placed a phone call to Mahaveer Baloda, who was also part of the mob. “They want to spoil Hindu culture and increase the population of Muslims and that’s why they are pursuing love jihad,” Baloda told me. “What they are doing is anti-national.”

Activists such as Nisha Sidhu of the National Federation of Indian Women, a women’s rights organisation, Kavita Srivastava from the PUCL, and Tarachand Varma, a Dalits-rights lawyer, allege that during the BJP state government’s rule, sections of the Rajasthan police, the lower judiciary and the prison administrations have been radicalised by Hindu majoritarian ideology. Srivastava, who is the Jaipur-based national secretary of PUCL India, told me that community-liaison groups have been particularly vulnerable to a takeover by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. CLGs are citizen groups that are involved in policing activities and form a link between the police and the citizenry.

A senior Congress functionary, who asked not to be named, confirmed this. He said that CLGs and other such institutions had seen an influx of members from right-wing organisations. “The Congress has not been able to project its ideology yet. The message has still not gone out that the Congress government has a sense of purpose or unity,” the functionary admitted. “The BJP starts implementing its ideology from day one, while we are still stuck in the fight between the chief minister and deputy chief minister,” the functionary said.

I also met Bhupendra Singh, the newly-appointed director general of Rajasthan Police, and asked him if the police has been polarised. “The police are not immune to polarisation and it is a perennial problem as to how to insulate the police from society’s caste and communal biases,” Singh replied. He added, “I have just taken over, but maybe something can be done in police training to reduce bias.”

On 28 June, I met Kayum at the Sawai Man Singh government hospital. He had complained that he could not see out of his right eye since the day of the attack. The jail authorities refused to believe him and gave him a generic painkiller. It was only nine days later that he was taken to SMS, where the doctor detected full retinal detachment and recommended surgery. When I visited Kayum, his hands were shackled to the bed and there were three cops guarding him. He ate the food that Momin had brought him. “Peedit paksh dhakke kha raha hai,”— the aggrieved party is being pushed around—muttered Momin, scared to say anything in front of the cops.

When I asked Kayum if falling in love with a Hindu girl was worth the trouble, he replied, “Everyone needs to live with dignity and be loved. I have never forced Shveta against her will and I am willing to endure if it means we can live together.”