The hateful love ‘jihad’ conspiracy in India is going mainstream

Workers push a fancy light trolley used for wedding ceremonies on a road in Allahabad, India, on Saturday. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)
Workers push a fancy light trolley used for wedding ceremonies on a road in Allahabad, India, on Saturday. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)

In the year preceding the national elections in India in 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose to power, India witnessed a brutal episode of communal carnage in the state of Uttar Pradesh. More than 60 people were killed, women were gang-raped, and more than 50,000 people were displaced, a majority of them Muslims. The violence was triggered by false rumors of a “love jihad” — what Hindu nationalists say is an alleged plot by Muslim youths to woo and convert Hindu girls — and of Muslims consuming beef. These events, rather than hurting Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the state, were followed by his massive electoral victory.

That explains why India is now trying to institutionalize this kind of bigotry, violence and resentment.

On Nov. 24, Uttar Pradesh approved a “love jihad” order criminalizing religious conversions by marriage with jail terms of up to 10 years. The order would also nullify unions in which a woman changes her religion to marry. The state’s chief minister is the radical Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath. Last month, at a rally, he lashed out against “love jihad” and said men who “conceal their names and play with the honor of daughters and sisters” should prepare for death. Another BJP-ruled state, Madhya Pradesh, has included a five-year jail term for priests who sanction interfaith marriages between couples.

In recent weeks and days, the Indian right has been waging a campaign against any depictions of interfaith relations, including attacking Netflix for showing a kissing scene between a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl. These attacks keep feeding the dangerous “love jihad” conspiracy theory, the proponents of which seek to ultimately constrain and restrict the freedom of Hindu women and further demonize Muslims in India.

Videos of Hindu vigilantes beating up Muslim boys for allegedly falling in love with Hindu girls once generated universal condemnation. Now these attacks are gaining legitimacy.

In a country whose guiding principle was love and respect for a plurality of views, faiths and cultures, the ruling party’s attacks on interfaith love to consolidate the support of Hindu nationalists are part of Modi’s broader assault on our once-vibrant democracy. We live in a country where a famous Muslim actor such as Saif Ali Khan has to make a statement with obvious but necessary proclamations such as, “We come with our mix. To deny this is to cheat us of our inheritance. ... Intermarriage is not jihad. Intermarriage is India”.

The syncretic inheritance that Khan talks about has become an eyesore for Hindu nationalists who like to stoke fears of Muslim dominance over Hindus. But their attacks are not just against Islam.

A high-level functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fountainhead of Modi’s party, told me that Christian evangelists like Mother Teresa and Graham Staines, who helped lower-caste people in India with their charity organizations, were actually part of a campaign to spread Christianity in India under the guise of helping its poor. Staines and his two young children were burned alive in 1999 by a group of Hindu nationalists in the state of Orissa for allegedly spreading their faith among gullible, unsuspecting natives.

This hatred is now taking new shape on social media, television and family WhatsApp groups. Recently, after a wave of online hate, an ad by the jewelry brand Tanishq had to be withdrawn for showing a Muslim family celebrating Hindu customs and traditions to make a pregnant Hindu daughter-in-law feel loved. India under Modi is regressing dangerously to an era when women were deprived of their agency and their right to fall in love with someone of their choice. It is regressing to a country where values promoting communal amity are seen as a stumbling block on the road to establishing a Hindu nation.

This fundamental objection to love stems from a regime that has used hate as its guiding force to stay in power. It is in the interest of the world’s largest democracy that we love each other. We must reclaim our glorious nation from fundamentalists who are polluting India with this air of toxicity that has overwhelmed the country.

Rana Ayyub is an Indian journalist and author of “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up”.

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