The alleged gang-rape and forced conversion of a woman in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh has once again exposed the shoddy state of law and order enforcement in India. Enough contradictory information has been put out by the Samajwadi Party-led state government and people believe what they want to, according to their political inclinations. While one side cries "victim shaming" the other calls it "communalising" the issue. Different context, different victim, roles change and we are all guilty of this. We can only hope that the truth will come out and the perpetrators, if any, will be severely punished. In this episode though, a broader issue has come into the public domain yet again.
This spectre haunting social conservatives throughout the land, is known as 'love jihad' — the idea that Muslim men are allegedly attempting to woo non-Muslim, especially Hindu women, with the end result being (a) marriage and/or voluntary conversion, or (b) sexual exploitation and/or forced conversion. Now, let us pause and notice how (b) is of course criminal while (a) is legal. The concept of 'love jihad' itself seems very ambiguous. We would argue that this ambiguity is deliberate.
Extremist and patriarchal forces - mostly Hindus, occasionally Christians as well - are deliberately conflating the two different things above with very severe consequences for the communal amity of India. They are mixing love between a woman who happens to be non-Muslim and a man who happens to be Muslim with rape or "grooming" of Hindu women, even if it begins with the promise of love by a Muslim man. The latter has happened, but so have similar sexual exploitation by co-religionists. The issue is clearly not just about rape itself, but a broader sense of community "honour" that is seen as being vested in its women.
The conflation serves the cause of patriarchy in Hindu society and is driven by a strange form of envy at the patriarchal setup in Muslim society which might be worse. The argument that one hears in social media and on the street, and one that is unlikely to be articulated by political representatives publicly, basically boils down to this - "They do not allow 'their' women to marry us, but they want to take 'our' women". The obvious problem with this line of argument, besides its factual inaccuracy (Muslim female-Hindu male couples are less common, but hardly unheard of) is rather simple: what about the autonomy and individual rights of the women in question? Maybe they have an opinion or two about their own lives. Maybe a few likes and dislikes as well.
Mostly the broader Sangh Parivar, including the BJP, is seen pushing this issue, often exploiting the emotions attached to it from medieval Indian history, as they are allegedly doing right now in the communal cauldron of western Uttar Pradesh. But other parties are not above playing such retrogressive cards when it suits them as well.
In Haryana, the Congress has defended Khap panchayats. In Kerala, where the Communists play the soft Hindutva card in the absence of the BJP, the previous chief minister had talked about 'love jihad' — a not-so-subtle dog whistle to Hindu and Christian voters in the state to pull them away from the Congress- Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) alliance. Of course, couples where the woman happens to be a Muslim, are also severely targeted by Islamic conservatives, especially in small towns.
Compounding the problem of social bigotry is, what can charitably be called, the state’s indifference. Getting married under the Special Marriage Act, 1954 (SMA) entails putting a notice about the marriage for a month, so that vigilantes of all stripes can contact parents and threaten the couple. This notice would be understandable if it also happened in the case of intra-religion marriages – surely there is a need to ensure there are no objections there as well? But apparently this is not the case.
Moreover, getting police protection and a proper wedding under this law often entails significant greasing of palms, running up to Rs 70,000, according to reports. And most egregiously, the Act explicitly penalises people by severing them from their family, meaning that a person marrying under the Special Marriage Act cannot inherit ancestral property. Interestingly, this last clause does not apply when a Hindu (also includes Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains) marries another Hindu under the SMA. Thus, not only does the SMA disincentive inter-religion marriages in general, it explicitly penalises Hindu– non-Hindu unions.
On one hand, the BJP talks about having a Universal Civil Code (UCC), and indeed that is a liberal reform as a UCC does not entail homogenised rituals, but simply forces the state to not have different laws for individuals based on religious identity. Those who oppose a UCC, suggested by the Constitution and the Supreme Court, just because of their partisan inclinations, are doing a grave disservice to Muslim women specifically and to Indian secularism in general.
Yet, the same BJP speaks in dual tongues when it is seen whipping up passions against Hindu-Muslim marriages. It also cannot bring itself to explicitly distance itself from those who would deny Muslims accommodation in their neighbourhood and those who would threaten to deport them to Pakistan at the drop of a hat. Now, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has a helpline for Hindu parents concerned about, amongst other things, their daughters being allegedly harassed by Muslim men. Who here believes that “complaints” will not also be against genuine relationships?
The BJP government’s views on a UCC are right, but they sorely lack the credibility to move on this issue. Muslim feminists are caught between being seen as supporting the orthodox mullahs on one hand and the BJP on the other. The government should begin with small steps – by first making the SMA marriage process as simple as those under the various personal laws.
An ideal case scenario would also be to give couples who marry under the SMA tax incentives (if needed, the tax incentives can be refundable so that those not rich enough to pay taxes also benefit). This would even encourage intra-religion marriages to be registered under this law, which is the most progressive and gender-neutral that we have so far. The SMA could, therefore, act as a robust opt-in UCC without coercion of any kind.
With a simple majority in the Lok Sabha and the “nuclear option” of a Joint Session, along with the support of many allies, the BJP is in a dominant position. But whether they choose to be petty or transformative on this burning issue remains to be seen.