'Love Jihad' law: Once again an attempt at polarisation

'Love Jihad' law: Once again an attempt at religious polarisation

UP government’s law to prevent forcible and unlawful conversions aimed at stopping the so-called practice of ‘Love Jihad’ is likely to be followed up by other BJP-ruled states 

It is certain that the Uttar Pradesh Ordinance will be challenged in court. Credit: iStock Photo

हुस्ने मस्तानी के जलवों के जो आदी हो गए।

अब तो बाजीराव भी जैसे फसादी हो गए।

इस नए क़ानून पर जोधा ने अकबर से कहा।

आज से ज़िल्ले इलाही लव जिहादी हो गए ।

(Smitten as he is by the beauty of Mastani, Bajirao seems to have become a rioter.
On the new law, Jodha told Akbar, His Majesty has become a Love Warrior)

Not great poetry, but the poignancy of this message, doing the rounds of the social media as I got down to write this piece, could not have been more suitable in these times when more and more matters of the heart, and much more, are being declared 'unsuitable'. With its intention to usher in a new law, the Uttar Pradesh government has driven fear into the hearts of generations who internalised the romantic song from the iconic Hindi 1960 film, Mughal-E-Azam, “Pyar kiya to darna kiya...” (what is there to dread if one has loved).

Paradoxically, the UP Cabinet granted its (predictable) approval to the U.P. Unlawful Religious Conversion Prohibition Ordinance, 2020,  merely a day after the Allahabad High Court stated: "Right to live with a person of his/her choice irrespective of religion professed by them, is intrinsic to right to life and personal liberty. Interference in a personal relationship would constitute a serious encroachment on the right to freedom of the two individuals."

Significantly, Justices Pankaj Naqvi and Justice Vivek Agarwal of the aforesaid court, made these observations while nullifying an FIR of kidnapping, forcible conversion and case under the POCSO Act against a Muslim man accused of forcefully converting and marrying a Hindu girl. 

The HC quashed the FIR after lending a patient ear to the girl's father who claimed that conversion for sake of marriage was prohibited and such a marriage had no legal sanctity. Most appreciably, the court opined: "To disregard the choice of a person who is an adult would not only be antithetic to freedom of choice of a grown-up individual but would also be a threat to concept of unity in diversity."

Divergence between words and actions

Not only did the Uttar Pradesh government, led by Yogi Adityanath, a possible future national-level electoral mascot of Hindutva forces, disregard the HC judgement, but it also went against the assertion of the Centre's declaration in Parliament that "the term ‘Love Jihad’ is not defined under the extant laws." This was stated on February 4, 2020, by Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy in Lok Sabha as part of a written reply to a Parliamentary question. 

Sangh Parivar's unremitting campaign not just numbs the mind, but also erases public memory, especially points on which its leaders and spokespersons can be held to account. The person believed to be the second-most powerful in the country, Amit Shah, was asked last month to clarify on a related matter. The background was the decision of high-end jewellery company, Tanishq, to junk its heartwarming and smile-inducing advertisement celebrating interfaith marriages. In an interview, granted to convey to people that he was back in action after a bout of illness, Shah expressed disapproval at what he termed, 'over-activism.' The UP law must now be held to him and he must be asked if this too is not something similar.

Since 2014 there has always been a divergence between words and action of members of the Sangh Parivar, especially ones in government. As the representative of the State, ambitions have to be limited within the Constitutional framework. But the cadre and affiliated organisations have always been granted liberty to articulate extreme views. Periodically, these are frowned upon by the leadership and friendly sections of the media label these groups as "fringe forces" to propagate the falsity that the mainstream still maintains a distance from hotheads. This has been seen on matters of cow-protection too when the leadership chided over-enthusiasts and lynchers in public but took no action against even repeat offenders.

Role of Adityanath government

For quite some time, the Uttar Pradesh government has displayed evidence that the State is beginning to play the role of the rabble-rouser. Adityanath's appointment as chief minister in March 2017 was preceded by a highly polarised electoral campaign replete with use of the politics of dog whistle and he followed this with the formation of anti-Romeo squads. This move failed to fulfil the primary objective of reducing crime against women in the state as the squads opted to function as kangaroo courts, asking alleged offenders to perform sit-ups in public, shave their heads and smear interfaith couples' faces with black paint if found together in public spaces. Even the courts chided the UP Police. The Lucknow Bench of the High Court asked that the least that could be done was to ensure that the Squads followed their 'own guidelines'.

In September 2018 a leaked video showed a policewoman berating a Hindu girl for being detained with a Muslims boy. In an act of public shaming, the policewoman was heard screaming vulgarly: "Mullah zyada pasand aa raha hai? Woh hi dikh rahe hain Hindu ke hote hue? Mullah ka .... ho?" (You prefer a Muslim? You could not get for yourself a Hindu boy? Sleeping around with a Muslim?) The next day, another video surfaced and this time vigilantes were showing thrashing the Muslim friend of the Hindu girl. 

Now, after this move to get this law underway, there are fears that vigilantism will become redundant because punishment will be permissible under law. 

The incident in the video, and the soon-to-be law in Uttar Pradesh, treat Hindu women as inconvenient appendages of a patriarchal worldview. They are not considered worthy of exercising their right to decide matters of their own heart. The entire Love Jihad campaign is based on the belief that Hindu women are 'weaklings' who are routinely seduced by 'handsome' Muslim men. There has been little evolution of this depiction from the 19th Century when medieval Muslims were vilified as ones who debased Hindu women.

A long-term campaign

It is likely that Uttar Pradesh will be followed by several other BJP-governed states who have declared their intent. Madhya Pradesh is already ready with its draft legislation. The entire campaign has a political objective. In the short run, the idea is to polarise the voter in West Bengal where polls are due in April-May 2021. Already a pictorial campaign has been launched in the state with the words Love Jihad smeared over the photographs of Mamata Banerjee and Asaduddin Owaisi. In the long run, the idea is to keep public angst focussed away from policy matters and on more emotive issues, and what better way can there be than hate and fear.

It is certain that the Uttar Pradesh Ordinance will be challenged in court. Both legal outcomes would benefit the BJP and its affiliates in the Sangh Parivar. If the law is upheld, the deck would be cleared for a national law to prevent inter-faith marriages as the Special Marriage Act functions more as a dissuasive tool, than an empowering enabler, for adults to exercise personal rights and breakaway from rigid parental control seeped in moribund traditional norms.

In the event of courts declaring the enacted law as null and void, energy will once be diverted to a campaign proclaiming instruments of the State as continuing to 'appease' minorities while being against interests of the majority community. At a time when the judiciary is being criticised for being unable to uphold the fundamental rights of citizens, such a campaign will make things more difficult.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.