“Love jihad”—the Sangh Parivar’s sexual politics by another name

29 August, 2014

In the first week of August, a few days after the national media had descended on Meerut to cover the story of the alleged gang rape and forced conversion of a young woman, I received a call from Muzaffarnagar. The caller, a lawyer and Jat political activist recently aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party, was irate that while the Meerut story received wall-to-wall coverage in the national press, there was no interest in another story of abduction, rape and forcible conversion of a Hindu woman from the town of Thana Bhawan in Shamli district.

A year ago, my caller, while trying to explain the communally vitiated atmosphere of Muzaffarnagar, had told me that some Hindu organisations had said that well-dressed young Muslim men on motorcycles, red puja threads tied on their wrists, and with ambiguous nick-names, hung around girls’ high schools and colleges with the intention of seducing them. He sounded unconvinced as he told me this. I asked him if they called it “love jihad” as they did in Kerala and Karnataka. He said he’d never heard of that term nor read about it in the papers.

Some months later at the Muzaffarnagar home of a BJP member, who described himself as a life-long swayamsevak, I was asked if I knew about “loving jihad.” It was a rhetorical question. My host, and his friend, who campaigned actively for the BJP MP Sanjeev Baliyan, proceeded to tell me that it was a conspiracy hatched in Deoband to get young Muslim men to ensnare Hindu women by feigning love in order to increase the Muslim population. The more Hindu women married Muslim men, were impregnated by them and converted to Islam, the fewer Hindu wombs there would be to produce Hindu children.

So, the Sangh was on a mission, they said, to save these women from betraying the communities of their birth. They recounted with glee how they had pounced on a courting couple at a restaurant in Muzaffarnagar town, painted the man’s face black and paraded him through the streets and escorted the woman to her parents. This one had been nipped in the bud. There was another case where they had hunted down a young married woman, snatched her from her new home and returned her to her parental village where they arranged for her to marry again (no one mentioned divorce), this time, a man from her own community.

The absolute illegality of their actions was of no consequence. After all, young people in western Uttar Pradesh who make choices in defiance of their community’s code of conduct sometimes end up dead—killed by their own parents. It is also not unusual across northern India for parents to file cases of kidnapping and rape when a daughter elopes or marries against their wishes, using the law in effect to deprive her of safeguards of the law—her personhood, her constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, while criminalising her entirely legal decision to leave their home, to cohabit with a man and to have consensual sex. The Sangh Parivar’s activities fit comfortably with this form of social violence.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Sangh Parivar holds that “love jihad” was incubated in Deoband. But it was in northern Kerala and coastal Karnataka, in the late 2000s, that the idea of “love jihad” was concocted—and widely reported on. Sangh organisations, ably assisted by the local thanas, would pick up mixed-religion couples on public transport and from public places and force them to separate, often making them sign a written agreement to never meet or communicate again. Investigations by the police in both states, prompted by the Sangh’s claims of a massive Muslim conspiracy funded from abroad, failed to find any evidence. The Karnataka Police report stated that there was no conspiracy to lure Hindu women—on the contrary, many women had chosen to marry Muslims and converted to Islam of their own free will.

It’s this business about free-will that seems to stick in the gullet of the proponents of love jihad in Uttar Pradesh. Good Hindu girls, they say, would never fall for a Muslim man. So they have to be tricked. Hence the narrative I first heard last year, of Muslims disguised as Hindus set on seducing Hindu women. By the same token, this narrative was also littered with faceless, silly, empty-headed, or at best naïve girls and women who, mesmerised by the sight of these young men, hopped on the back of their motorbikes (just as in a poster warning against love jihad) and rode off into dishonourable oblivion.

Yet in Uttar Pradesh the term “love jihad” lacked political potency. For the young women—however naïve and imbecilic they were made out to be—were acting of their own volition. They were choosing strangers—“love marriage,” over bonds of caste, community and religion. While some of these relationships were sundered by social pressures and the machinations of the Sangh Parivar, many others survived. It was near impossible to make a politically explosive case that they were all victims of a grand deception. So, it was not “love jihad”— an unfamiliar term that had failed to grab people’s imaginations—but the “bahu-beti-bachao andolan” (movement to save daughters and daughters-in-law) that animated the violence in Muzaffarnagar last year and the communally divisive Lok Sabha election campaign that followed. The claim of the bahu-beti-bachao andolan was that Muslim men were committing sexual crimes against Hindu women. The BJP’s national campaign may have been about Narendra Modi and the Gujarat model, but at village election meetings, the BJP’s Amit Shah spoke of Muslims as “those who violate our women,” and Sanjeev Baliyan’s campaign described the election as a “maan-sammaan, bahu-beti ka chunav”(an election for honour and respect, daughters-in-law and daughters). This was not talk of love, feigned or otherwise, but of sexual violence—molestation and rape—and the consequent loss of honour that had to be avenged.

Since the election, the newspapers have regularly carriedreports of alleged forced marriages, rapes and conversions, with a Hindu organisation participating in the ensuing protests and violence. The Hindi press, which in preceding years barely acknowledged the term “love jihad,” now seems much taken with it. Yet, apart from the Meerut case of alleged gang-rape and conversion, most of the stories have failed to ignite—not least because they involved consenting adults. The Thana Bhawan case that my caller from Muzzafarnagar was so exercised about was closed by mid-August. The woman had made a statement saying she had left her village of her own free will with her boyfriend and sought the protection of the High Court.

Yet, as it commenced its state-executive meeting last week, the Uttar Pradesh unit of the BJP seemed determined to focus on inter-religious sexual relations and love jihad. The UP BJP president Lakshmikant Bajpai, declared that Muslims committed 99 percent of rapes in the state, a barefaced lie that was widely reported. He also claimed that the state government was protecting “love jihadis.” The state unit’s formal political resolution was careful to avoid the term “love jihad” that the capital’s media had focused on. But it asserted, “There is a 50% rise in rapes and those guilty are showing their strength but the Akhilesh government is discriminating on parameters of religion and caste. It is a matter of concern that those accused of rape are from a specific section and are targeting women from another section.”

“Love jihad” and “bahu-beti-bachao” are just nomenclature. The UP BJP, is not concerned with what you call it, but it is all set to preserve Hindu bahus and betis for Hindu men, never mind what the women want for themselves.