By Madhu Purnima Kishwar
October 17, 2014
One of the most unfortunate tendencies in India’s political discourse is to reduce every issue into a “for” versus “against” proposition. This propensity for polarising all issues into two extreme positions is an important reason why almost every issue leads to a permanent stalemate and we rarely move towards solutions.
“Love jihad” has come to be one of the latest additions to a meaninglessly polarised debate on a sensitive issue. On the one hand, “love jihad” has been portrayed by Hindutva groups as a sinister and well-planned conspiracy to seduce, abduct, blackmail or coerce young Hindu women to convert to Islam under the guise of love affairs with Muslim men. On the other hand, “secular” opponents of Hindutva are projecting it as a case of “freedom of choice” in marriage. They castigate the campaign against “love jihad” as a conspiracy of obscurantist Hindu groups to keep the sexuality of Hindu women under the control of Hindu patriarchs. Let’s try and sift the chaff from the grain on both sides.
To begin with, let us be clear that even the radical Hindutva groups do not object to genuine marriages between mutually caring individuals, even if they be a case of Hindu-Muslim union. When two families join together in celebrating a Hindu-Muslim union and when there is no coercive conversion, none in Hindu society has a problem with it. However, the angst about “love jihad” has to do with surreptitious marriages, often under false pretexts or with the hidden agenda of forcing Hindu women into the Islamic fold as sex slaves.
There is no denying that some families are hostile even when the love affair between a Hindu girl and a Muslim man is genuine, especially if the couple elopes, thus causing social humiliation. Marriage by elopement is uniformly looked down upon by all communities, even when it is not inter-religious. This is because, in most close-knit traditional societies (the word “tradition” shouldn’t be mistaken for “backward” or “obscurantist”, but simply societies that value their social and cultural heritage), marriage is not treated as a union of two individuals but a coming together of two families. This occasion is not only considered sacred almost all over the world but also considered incomplete without the blessings of family elders and joint celebration by members of the two families. The idea of inviting relatives and friends to witness the occasion is to drive home the message that marriage is a social bond, not just a licence to establish sex relations between a couple. Hindu marriage vows, in fact, include taking responsibility for each other’s families.
My experience tells me that in most cases where the man genuinely cares for the woman, he would not like her to break bonds with her family. The couple would do their best to win the confidence of the woman’s parents, and vice versa. A marriage has a far better chance of surviving if the two families respect each other and act as the glue between the couple. Those who treat marriage as a liaison between just two individuals are living in a Hollywood fantasy.
But “love jihad” has little to do with “love”. It is more a trap than a romantic liaison. That is why it is causing upset not just among Hindus, but also among Sikhs and Christians. It is causing angst not just in India but also in other countries.
For instance, the Commission for Social Harmony and Vigilance of the Kerala Catholics Bishops Conference also published a report highlighting the criminal conduct of love jihadists. It said, “There were 2,868 female victims of ‘love jihad’ in Kerala from 2006 to 2009.” The situation must have been grave if the then chief minister of Kerala, V.S. Achuthanandan, of the CPM, alleged conversion of non-Muslim girls to Islam under the pretext of love marriage. The Kerala state police inquiry into this phenomenon concluded that “there are reasons to suspect ‘concentrated attempts’ to persuade girls to convert to Islam after they fall in love with Muslim boys”. Since the demographic profile in certain districts of Kerala, West Bengal, etc has changed dramatically in recent decades, it lends credence to this charge.
The matter went to the Kerala High Court. On December 10, 2009, Justice K.T. Sankaran ruled that there were indications of forceful conversion under the garb of love in the state with the blessings of certain political outfits. He asked the government to consider enacting a law to prohibit such “deceptive” acts. There are similar reports coming from certain districts of West Bengal, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
The Akal Takht, the highest temporal seat of Sikhism, has taken a serious view of reports that Sikh girls in England and America are falling victim to “love jihad”, with Pakistani youth seducing non-Muslim girls to convert them to Islam and use them in jihadi activities. Some of these girls were later dumped by their husbands in Pakistan, where their in-laws have been using them as domestic slaves.
This phenomenon is not limited to Hindu and Sikh girls or Indian Christians. According to a February report by June Thomas, culture critic of Slate and editor of Outward, between 1997 and 2013, in the English town of Rotherham, at least 1,400 girls were groomed for sexual exploitation by Pakistani men. The findings of an independent inquiry into the case declared that the girls were raped by multiple predators, trafficked to other towns and cities, abducted, beaten and intimidated. There were examples of girls who had been doused in petrol and threatened with being set alight, terrorised with guns, made to witness brutally violent rapes and threatened that they would be next if they told anyone.
It is noteworthy that most victims were white and most predators were from what is known in Britain as “the Pakistani-heritage community”. British Home Secretary Theresa May told parliament that “institutionalised political correctness” contributed to the authorities’ turning a blind eye.
The Indian government is similarly turning a blind eye to this menace out of fear of being dubbed anti-Muslim. However, in order to get this issue due attention, it needs to be freed from the clutches of rabble-rousers claiming to speak on behalf of Hindutva. The fact that hysteria-mongers like Yogi Adityanath and outfits like the Bajrang Dal are leading this campaign robs it of serious credibility. Secularists dismiss the issue, alleging that this is the outcome of phobic fantasies by Hindu groups who exaggerate stray cases of Hindu-Muslim marriages to project them as a tsunami of conversions.
This arrogant dismissal only adds fuel to fire. Even if the total numbers run into a few thousand, we need to view the figures in the perspective of other atrocities against women. For instance, a few hundred cases of bride-burning every year led to such widespread outrage all over the country that a spate of extremely stringent laws had to be enacted. Similarly, a few well-publicised brutal rapes were enough to get people so agitated that a draconian new law was passed with lightning speed to assert that the government was serious about protecting women from predators. Therefore, even if “love jihad” has resulted in “only” a few thousand Hindu, Sikh or Christian women being trapped into conversion to Islam through foul means, the phenomenon deserves serious attention.
Unfortunately, in India, issues relating to women get to be taken seriously only if left-oriented feminist NGOs, backed by powerful foreign funding agencies, choose to project them. These NGOs have come to dominate social and political discourse in media to such an extent that unless they endorse an issue, it is considered illegitimate. Thanks to the persistent demonisation of the BJP and allied outfits, any issue taken up by Hindutva groups is automatically dismissed with disdain.
This is exactly where the role of non-partisan social scientists and media professionals becomes crucial. We need to rise above the left-right divide to investigate this menace with thorough precision. Only then will we know the extent of the threat, whether it is real or phobic. An essential prerequisite for coming to a resolution of contentious issues is the ability to distinguish between the legitimate grievances of any group or individual and their illegitimate fears. It is only when you are able to redress legitimate complaints that you acquire the moral right to put your foot down on illegitimate assertions and phobic fantasies.
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Madhu Purnima Kishwar is founder, Manushi, and professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi