New Delhi: The spectre of “love jihad” is haunting India again. The last time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took this up as a political plank wholeheartedly, it resulted in the killing of 62 people, and displacement of more than 50,000 Muslims in the days following the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh.
In the months preceding the riots that left all of western UP polarised along religious lines, the BJP unit of the state experimented with the ‘love jihad’ campaign and successfully shattered the region’s social harmony. Jats and Muslims, who had come together as one agricultural community under the leadership of former Prime Minister Charan Singh since the 1970s, became sworn enemies. The resultant social fragmentation is still bearing fruit for the saffron party.
That was a time when Amit Shah, a little-known face outside Gujarat, was appointed as the UP election in charge by his party. Energised by his stewardship, BJP workers went from village to village in western UP to campaign against what they called ‘love jihad’ – an idea that the Sangh parivar had already been employing to polarise Hindus and Muslims in coastal Karnataka, a region which has historically been Hindutva’s laboratory.
BJP workers and others affiliated with the Sangh parivar triggered distrust among Jats against Muslims. They visited villages and held meetings with elders in the Jat community, with the intention to exploit orthodoxy among older people and their traditional opposition to romantic liaisons of any type.
Armed with a newly-built well-oiled rumour machinery on social media, these workers claimed that certain madrassas were funded by terrorist organisations and Islamic countries to convert Hindu women. To achieve this goal, they continued, these madrassas identified “good-looking Muslim young men” and trained them to stalk Hindu women. According to Hindutva activists, the madrassas taught young Muslim men to dress in “a modern way”, and then funded them to open mobile phone shops and buy motorbikes, which they could use to woo Hindu women.
This wild theory was then amplified by circulating multiple fake videos over WhatsApp. The campaign had such an impact that in late 2012, a khap panchayat in western UP banned women from carrying mobile phones altogether. After all, according to the rumour fuelled by the Sangh parivar, mobile phone shops managed by Muslim youth were the first stops for Hindu women and Muslim men to interact. This decision was subsequently endorsed by many other khap panchayats of the contiguous Jat-dominated region in western UP and Haryana.
The seeds of distrust had thus been sown before the Muzaffarnagar communal riots in 2013. It merely took a small skirmish between some Hindu and Muslim men over a motorbike, in which one Muslim man was killed, to snowball into a full-fledged communal riot that ravaged the region for days.
How “love jihad” became an effective riot instrument
Within hours of this tussle in Kawal village, a Muslim mob lynched the two Jat men it thought were responsible for the murder.
However, as the day passed, the Sangh parivar started circulating an old video in which Taliban members were seen lynching a person and claiming this was the lynching in Kawal village. The fake video was circulated along with the rumour that the two Jat men were lynched when they tried to prevent Muslims from stalking their sister.
To stoke communal tension, the Sangh parivar then organised a massive rally for the cremation of the two Jat men who were killed. On their way back from the cremation, the mob entered Muslim colonies in Kawal on tractors and motorbikes. They vandalised and looted Muslim houses and shops, and burnt down mosques of the area while shouting slogans like ‘Jao Pakistan, warna kabristan (Go to Pakistan or a graveyard)’, ‘Hindu ekta zindabad (Long live Hindu unity)’ and ‘Ek ke badle ek 100 (For one life, we will claim 100 lives)’.
The communal project was still incomplete. As the fake video was widely circulated, a few Jat leaders who were by now heavily influenced by the BJP’s ‘love jihad’ campaign called for a mahapanchayat, or a general body meeting of the Jat community, with the stated agenda “to defend Jat honour against aggressive Muslims”. Such mahapanchayats had some representation from the Muslim community historically, but no more. The mahapanchayat called in the aftermath of the Kawal violence was attended by prominent BJP leaders such as Hukum Singh, Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana, along with leaders of the influential Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) Naresh and Rakesh Tikait. Together, they gave a call to defend the honour of “their women”. The mahapanchayat came to be known as ‘Bahu, Beti Bachao Mahasammelan (Save your daughter-in-law and daughter)’.
As with the funeral procession, those who attended the Mahasammelan resorted to violence against Muslims on their way back. The Muslim leadership organised its own panchayats to try and counter the violence. Over the next few days, communal violence gradually spread to across Muzaffarnagar and adjoining districts – the then Samajwadi Party-led state government miserably failing to contain it.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Ashok Singhal had then famously justified the violence, “When society could no longer bear the ‘love jihadists’ outraging the modesty and dignity of Hindu women and girls in rural and urban areas of UP, the corrective movement in the form of the Bahu, Beti Bachao mahapanchayat came into being.”
The ‘love jihad’ campaign resulted in one of the biggest demographic transformations in India. When this correspondent, then with Frontline, visited many of these riot-affected villages in western UP, changes in the socio-economic framework was conspicuous. In Hindu-dominated villages, Muslims had left their homes and properties to settle elsewhere. Likewise, in most Muslim-majority villages, although fewer in number, a large section of Hindus had fled. In Kawal and many other such villages, the Jats and Sainis had illegally occupied all Muslim land and households, even as thousands of Muslims were thrust into relief camps.
Such was the polarisation that in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP, which had successfully divided the electorate on religious lines, swept all seats of western UP, where it had negligible presence earlier. The dominant Rashtriya Lok Dal, led by Charan Singh’s son Ajit Singh, was wiped out of the electoral map.
An RSS-backed campaign
Around the same time when the Muzaffarnagar riots were unfolding, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in September 2013 circulated an email to many journalists with a seemingly innocuous title “Some Facts: Muslim Man/Hindu Woman”. The email listed 73 male celebrities who were Muslim and had married Hindu women, but did not mention ‘love jihad’ at all.
Among those who figured in the list were stalwart film directors K. Asif, Muzaffar Ali, superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, Hindustani classical artists Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Vilayat Khan – all of whom married Hindu women.
“Doctor/Model Aditi Govitrikar, a Maharashtrian Brahmin, married Dr Muffazal Lakdawala. They had a daughter, Kiara, and a son, Zihaan. Govitrikar participated in and won the Mrs India competition under her post-marriage name, Sarah Muffazal Lakdawala. They are now separated. Dr Muffazal is now married to Priyanka, daughter of Maj. Gen. T.K. Kaul,” the email stated.
In a clear suggestion that Muslims could marry more than once, it said, “Classical vocalist Ali Akbar Khan married numerous times in his life. One of his wives was Rajdulari Devi, a singer herself. Their daughter Aneesa is married to TV producer Rajeev Chaudhary. Surprisingly, Ali Akbar and his Muslim wife Zubeida gave Hindu names to their sons, namely Ashish, Dhyanesh, Amresh and Pranesh. Out of these, Ashish declared himself to be a Hindu and separated from his Muslim wife, Firoza Dehalvi. Ashish’s children are Faraz (son) and Nusrat (daughter). Dhyanesh’s daughter Sahana is married to a Hindu (Mr Gupta). Dhyanesh’s son is Shiraz Khan.”
“Singer Sunidhi Chauhan, at the age of 18, eloped and married Bobby Khan, brother of choreographer Ahmed Khan. Her family never acknowledged the marriage and threatened to disown her. The couple fell apart in a year and she returned to her parents. She is now married to a Hindu,” the list went on to point out.
Where did the idea germinate?
The Sangh parivar has since then used the ‘love jihad’ campaign tactically to its advantage from time to time. However, as a political idea, it first gained currency in 2007 in the campaigns of the fringe Hindu Right organisation Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) in the Dakshina Kannada district of coastal Karnataka and parts of northern Kerala. HJS, until recently, openly associated itself with the Sanathan Sanstha, which has been named in several terror cases like the 2009 Goa bomb blasts and was linked to the murders of communist leader Govind Pansare, social activist and rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, epigraphist and Lingayat scholar M.M. Kalburgi, and journalist Gauri Lankesh.
The HJS has been active in different moral policing campaigns in the urban areas of coastal Karnataka. It shot to the limelight when its activists in multiple incidents attacked couples in parks, pubs, and colleges as part of its campaign against the westernisation of Indian culture. By 2007, it gave the same campaign a communal twist when its leaders in multiple meetings started using the term ‘love jihad’ to suggest that Muslim men strategically entrap Hindu women, marry them and convert them to Islam as part of an Islamist project – the larger objective, according to the organisation, being to reduce Hindus to a minority group in India.
On its website, the HJS equated Muslim youth to “sexual wolves” on the prowl. It also claimed without any evidence that as many as 30,000 women had already been converted to Islam in Karnataka alone, while in Dakshina Kannada, around three Hindu women became victims of ‘love jihad everyday.
However, with no proof to back its claims, the HJS campaign could not take off as the Sangh parivar had wantee it to.
The term was, however, legitimised by a 2009 Karnataka high court order which asked for a joint investigation by the Karnataka and Kerala police into the “love jihad movement”. The order was in response to a habeas corpus petition filed by parents of an adult woman who, by her own admission in court, had married a Muslim man and willingly converted to Islam.
Despite her statement, the woman, who was a resident of Chamarajanagar in southern Karnataka, was directed by the court to live with her parents until an investigation report was produced. What was even more surprising was that the court linked the habeas corpus petition with other cases of missing women across the state, who according to the court, could have been victims of ‘love jihad’.
A right-wing tabloid first used the term ‘love jihad’ in its report on the court order, only to be picked up by many other Kannada dailies, thereby giving popular traction to the idea.
Around the same period, the HJS intensified its communal campaign by claiming that an organisation called Muslim Youth Forum and multiple other Islamic websites had been training young men for ‘love jihad’. The allegations were probed by the Kerala police, which found no merit in them. Later the Kerala high court held that inter-faith marriages were common and could not be seen as a criminal act. The court also closed the investigation.
The HJS and other Sangh affiliates curiously moderated the ‘love jihad’ pitch from thereon, until the BJP unit of UP activated it again as a political strategy in 2012 – this time in rural areas of western UP where the notions of patriarchal honour and caste solidarities are deeply entrenched. The ‘love jihad’ campaign in western UP was much more elaborate than what it was in coastal Karnataka. Here, the Sangh parivar activists used the idea to amplify the old Hindutva rhetoric that stereotypes Muslims as cow slaughterers, lustful reproductive machines, criminals and black-marketeers.
In Muzaffarnagar, this correspondent spoke to many Sangh activists who kept advancing the idea that Muslims believe that consummating their relationship with kafirs (non-believers) will lead them to jannat (heaven), and that if not controlled, Muslims will soon outnumber Hindus in India.
Unfounded rumours of this kind were also propagated during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
‘Love jihad’ in its current shape is a greater divisive campaign than its former informal avatar. The idea has now transformed itself into one of the most effective Hindutva strategies to consolidate Hindu men who have struggled with their own multi-layered deep-rooted anxieties all their lives. In ‘love jihad’, most of them see a possibility to deny this reality and channel their insecurities against both Muslims and Hindu women.
Now, BJP’s concerted attempt to deflect attention
The BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Karnataka have further institutionalised such hypermasculine, communal politics by raking up the ‘love jihad’ bogey. By announcing its intention to make a law against it, or by referring to the disgraceful idea in political speeches to take a dig at Muslims, or by twisting a horrible murder case communally – all of which have made ‘love jihad’ a constant a talking point – the saffron party has gone back to its tried-and-tested formula to tighten its grip and retain control over what is now a thoroughly majoritarian society.
The promptness of the BJP-led state governments in simultaneously raising the issue has been visibly premeditated. Because of this, at least for the time being, the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, currently facing its most difficult period, has been fairly successful in deflecting attention from the public scrutiny of its many-sided failures to contain a raging epidemic, widespread economic distress and steeply-rising unemployment.