In India, a new chapter has opened in the Hindu nationalist playbook: a campaign alleging an Islamic conspiracy of “love jihad”. Muslim men, people say, are luring gullible Hindu girls into romantic relationships and then they marry them and forcibly convert them to Islam.

Even though 2.1 percent of marriages in India are interfaith, state after state ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has either passed laws prohibiting religious conversions for marriage or plans to. These laws are a direct result of an “anti-love jihad” propaganda by Hindutva groups.

Indian society continues to be hostile towards interfaith unions. Intolerance can range from social ostracism to outright violence against the couple and even their family members. Beyond their families, interfaith marriages can also result in communal tensions, violence and arson.

In August 2019, in the north-India state of Haryana, a 19-year-old Hindu girl left her family to marry 32-year-old Akil, a Muslim and father of two children. People blocked a highway and forced markets and shops to close. Hindu groups demanded that the girl be returned to her parents. The girl’s family filed a police complaint against the husband for kidnapping and forced conversion. The couple appealed to the state High Court seeking protection. In a video message the girl said that Akil was the love of her life and that she was not a commodity to be demanded back. She was an adult; she had chosen her husband; and she wouldn’t return.

Recently a jewellery brand in India owned by one of India’s largest conglomerate, the Tata Group, was forced to take down an advertisement for featuring an interfaith couple. It was forced to issue an apology for “hurting sentiments.”

The “love jihad” conspiracy theory fits into a Hindu right-wing narrative that Muslims will soon outnumber Hindus. Although it is alleged that this is an organized campaign, government investigations have found no evidence of it. Even the BJP national Government has confirmed this in parliament.

Anti ‘love jihad’ laws

The BJP states of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have passed anti “love jihad” legislation, making the conversion for marriage a cognizable and non-bailable offence with imprisonment ranging from 1 to 10 years and with heavy fines. The burden of proof is on the accused. Other BJP states, Haryana, Karnataka and Gujarat, are considering similar legislation. In Kerala and Bengal, which will go to the polls soon, the BJP has promised similar laws if it wins. The national government is staying aloof.

Some of these laws have been challenged in the Supreme Court. But with the top court refusing a stay, police have started taking action against interfaith couples and their families. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, within one month of the controversial law being passed, 49 arrests were made in the 14 cases filed, of which only two complaints were made by the “victims”. In Madhya Pradesh, 23 cases were filed in the first 23 days since the law came into force in January 2021.

In December last year, in Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor, a teenage Muslim boy walking home from a friend’s birthday party with a friend, a 16-year old Hindu girl, was attacked by a group of Hindu nationalists. The boy was arrested, charged with abduction and child abuse. The boy’s family is now struggling to prove that the boy is a minor. In another incident, a pregnant 22-year-old girl suffered a miscarriage after she was sent to a state-run home and her Muslim husband was jailed when they went to register their marriage in Moradabad town again in Uttar Pradesh.

Historical background

Although the notion of love jihad is relatively new, as Charu Gupta, an historian at the University of Delhi, argues, the term has “uncanny resemblances and parallels to the campaigns launched by the Arya Samaj in the 1920s in north India against the ‘abduction’ of Hindu women and the larger politics of such mobilisations.” Today social media has helped “serve up an avalanche of sensational and provocative” tweets, hashtags, videos, graphics and prime time debates on TV to sensationalise the danger of Muslim men seeking to entrap Hindu women.

Ironically, it was Christians who coined the term “love jihad.” In 2009, the Social Harmony and Vigilance Commission of the Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council (KCBC) in the south India state of Kerala, alleged that 2,866 Catholic women had been converted to Islam by “Romeo jihadis” or “love jihadis”. Following the Catholic lead, Hindu groups in Kerala claimed that about 4,000 Hindu women had been converted by the “love jihadis”. Christian groups have themselves been blamed by Hindu groups for evangelizing and converting Hindus.

These wild and unsubstantiated allegations led to rumours of young Muslim men being offered cash from abroad to buy trendy clothing and expensive bikes to “woo non-Muslims women into marriage and beget children and that these women were later being forced into illegal activities, including drug trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism.”

Diversity and interfaith marriages

About 79.8 percent of India’s 1.38 billion population is Hindu; 14.2 percent Muslim; 2.3 percent Christian; and 1.72 percent Sikhs. There are also large numbers, if not large percentages, of Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians and other religions. Each community regulates matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and succession.

However, most of these laws are archaic and are often criticized for perpetuating gender inequality and discrimination. For instance, the Hindu Marriage Act allows members of the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Sikh religions to intermarry without forsaking their religion of birth. Under Sharia law, Muslim men are permitted to marry Christian or Jewish women, but Muslim women are forbidden to marry non-Muslims. A Christian can still marry a non-Christian and remain in good standing.  

The Special Marriages Act of 1954 treated the faith of the partners as immaterial. However, most Indians still prefer marriages arranged within their religion and caste. Of the 19,250 marriages registered in Delhi in 2019, only 3 percent were interfaith marriages registered under the Special Marriages Act.

Fear of ‘love jihad’

The case of Hadiya alias Akhila in the Indian Supreme Court has provoked a furore among both Hindus and liberals. Born a Hindu in Kerala, Akhila converted to Islam without the knowledge of her parents. She left home and started living in Islamic institutions until her father filed a habeas corpus petition in the Kerala High Court. The Court seemed to approve of her private decision to convert, so her father filed another habeas corpus petition alleging that there was a plan to marry Akhila to a Muslim and move her abroad. Sure enough, Akhila did marry a Muslim, whom she claimed to have met through a Muslim matrimonial website. The court considered the marriage to be a sham and ordered an investigation into the background of the boy. The police found that he was associated with an Islamic youth organisation with some links to ISIS. The Hindu right complained of indoctrination while liberals were aghast at the power of the judiciary to intervene in the personal life of an adult woman.

Despite the amazing economic growth and scientific development, India is deeply traditional. Life continues to be defined by family, caste and sub-caste, religion, and region. The challenges faced by interfaith couples vary. Urban middle-class couples may face less resistance and intolerance. Faced with intolerance and discrimination, rural couples may be forced to move to a city, where life is more anonymous.

Interfaith couples often experience social and official discrimination. In 2018, the foreign minister, the late Sushma Swaraj, had to intervene on behalf of an interfaith couple. A Hindu woman tweeted her harrowing experience at a passport office where she was berated for not changing her name after marriage. Following the minister’s intervention action was taken against the passport officer. The minister faced a barrage of social media trolls for supporting the women. 

Opposition to the idea of interfaith marriage results from a mix of fantasy and fear. Brushing it off merely as a conspiracy theory ignores decades, even centuries, of prejudice. Given the rise of Hindutva politics, it was only a matter of time before interfaith marriages became a part of the Hindu supremacist agenda.

The patriarchal nature of Indian society assumes that a woman is incapable of making the right choices for herself. Hence the pernicious belief that she needs supervision. Women were always subject to parental control — and now they are being policed by unscrupulous activists. India’s 21st century is very different from the West’s.

Sunny Peter is a writer and freelance journalist based in Mumbai, India. He writes on international affairs, diplomacy, terrorism, ethnicity, social integration, religion and culture. His articles have...