Protestors against ‘Love jihad’ wreak war on inter-faith couples

Judiciary come to rescue as right-wing governments try to ban inter-religious marriages

Society

September 20, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Protestors against ‘Love jihad’ wreak war on inter-faith couples

Boatman Ravinder Sharma and his wife Noor, have faced constant harassment from their community since their interfaith marriage in 2013 (MIG Photos)

As a number of states, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, bring laws banning interfaith marriages and as interfaith couples face increasingly violent attacks from right-wing vigilante groups, courts and a few NGOs come to the aid of couples who put love before everything else.

Ravinder Sharma, a boatman and tour guide at Yamuna Ghat, Delhi, met his wife Rani (earlier known as Noor) in 2013, when she came down from Mumbai with her family. After weeks of showing her nearby sights and hours spent together on the river, they fell in love, and Sharma laughs as he tells the story of how Rani first proposed to him. They got married in high spirits, but the next day, everything changed.

“The day we got married, our life got upturned. When we came back to the house, all our things were gone, not one utensil left, and the electricity was cut. There was not even a bed, so we were forced to sleep on the floor. The next day the arguments started and in a fight with my elder brother, five of my teeth were broken,” Sharma tells Media India Group.

Although rare, with interfaith marriages making up only 3.1 pc of all weddings in Delhi in 2019, the Sharmas’ frustrating story is certainly not unheard of in India, the most contentious of which are usually Hindu-Muslim unions. Sharma says no one in his family supported him, and his brother’s wife, who worked in Delhi police, went out of her way to make their lives a living hell and has continued even seven years on.

“No one acted like family, not even my mother. No one thought, ‘we should respect a new bride.’ We continuously faced harassment from everyone in the community. They blocked me from getting work, called my wife Muslim slurs, because they thought that no matter what, they must make sure the marriage will break and she will go back where she came from. I told them, I could leave them but never her as marriage is not something that happens every day,” recalls Sharma.

Over the recent past, hatred towards interfaith couples has been growing visibly in India, with attacks, including fatal ones, on the couples who dare to break the social barriers and decide to marry. The attacks and the attackers are encouraged by a passive police force, which often also acts against the couples on false complaints of kidnapping or forced conversions, instead of protecting the couples from threats and violence.

Though the younger generation seems to be ready to dump some of the older mores of Indian society, attitudes towards interfaith weddings seem to be hardening. A Pew Research Centre survey conducted in June 2021 revealed that 67 pc of Hindus and 80 pc of Muslims said that it is very important to them that inter-faith marriages of women belonging to their community be stopped. Christians and Buddhists however, shared a very different opinion, with only 37 and 46 pc, respectively, being against it.

The most common objections are of those weddings that involve Hindu girls and Muslim boys, with those against such unions claiming they are fighting ‘love jihad,’ a conspiracy accusing Muslim men of trapping Hindu women with the sole purpose of converting them to Islam.

“It is not rare at all. My cousin sister got married to a Muslim man against her parents’ wishes, and soon she started wearing burkhas and going by a different name. When our family members objected, they left home and never came back. I grew up with her, and I haven’t seen or been able to contact her for almost years now. The laws should definitely be made stricter for certain cases,” Priya Ghosh, a 53-year-old Delhi resident who follows Hindu faith, tells Media India Group.

The Special Marriage Act, enacted in 1954 was made partially to protect Indian nationals’ rights to marry, irrespective of the religion or faith. However, the Act mandates a 30-day notice period for interfaith couples, which has increasingly been misused as it privatises the law and gives anyone outside the couple, including family members, neighbours and police, the power to object. Recently, there have been increasing reports of couples being forcibly stopped, most frequently in BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh.

“Those people are mad. They do not understand that you cannot choose who you love. Why should others interfere or be worried about someone’s personal life? I am the one who got married, who has to live the rest of my life with my wife,” says Sharma.

Over the past few years, the Special Marriage Act’s requirement of a public notice of the intent to marry has been weaponised by vigilante groups who oppose such marriages, and caused severe harassment to many couples, some who have received death threats or been forced to abandon their weddings in fear. There have also been reports of these vigilantes making information-gathering networks, with information about such couples posted online and sometimes even provided by agents in marriage registry offices. For example, in July, an interfaith couple getting married in UP’s Ballia district was allegedly harassed by members of Hindutva group Karni Sena, who stopped the wedding by claiming that it was a case of forced religious conversion and took them to the police station, where the Muslim man was detained on abduction charges.

“I laugh at this phrase ‘love jihad’. Either there can be love or there can be jihad (war). Love is not war; it is nature. How can it go together? They claim the woman was forcefully converted, but she is not the one who filed the complaint. It is others who get angry about inter-caste or inter-religion relationships. It is an attempt of the state to terrorise people in a country where the father, mother, brother all have the power to make complaints or implicate someone on false charges. Love doesn’t see caste, religion or colour. Love is love,” Sanjeev Sachdev, chairman of Love Commandos, an NGO that helps protect couples from harassment and honour killings, tells Media India Group.

Unfortunately, in attempts to consolidate Hindu votes, many states ruled by the BJP – such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, besides UP have gone the extra mile to prevent interfaith weddings by passing laws that ban such unions, all in the name of “protecting innocent women”.

But activists say that these laws are in direct violation of the Indian Constitution which guarantees several basic freedoms to all, including the right to choose partners or their faith. “Article 21 of the Indian Constitution says each and every person has freedom to follow whatever religion they want. They are making these laws that violate the Constitution. Several orders of the Supreme Court have made it the duty of government officials as well as the police to provide protection to every citizen, irrespective of colour and caste, but all these laws violate that and police do not know whether to follow the orders of Supreme Court or their Chief Minister. We need to understand that during our independence struggle, huge sacrifices have been made by every community: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and I am sure our judiciary will move to make sure such laws do not continue to stand,” Sachdev adds.

The judiciary seems to be increasingly becoming the bulwark against the vigilante groups as well as governments that push laws which curb basic human rights. In August, Gujarat High Court stayed proposed amendments in a law proposed by the government that would criminalise inter-religious marriages, saying it was unconstitutional and that the stay would protect inter-faith couples from harassment until the matter is settled in court.

Remarkably, in Uttar Pradesh, which seems to be at the core of the right-wing attempts to block interfaith marriages, Allahabad High Court also took a stand to increase protection for interfaith couples. In January, while hearing a petition from an interfaith couple who claimed that public notices worsened social pressure towards their choice to marry, the judge mandated that publicising notices would be optional in order to protect their right to privacy. This is in stark contrast to proposed amendments that suggest a 60-day notice period, twice the amount of time for couples to be exposed to possible harassment. Last week, in another case involving an interfaith couple from Gorakhpur, the court made it clear that “nobody, not even their parents, could object to their relationship.”

Gujarat’s decision was lauded by several legal experts, who believe it is a positive step towards preventing a dangerous trend of state intervention in private affairs, especially those that are politically motivated.

“I do not believe in this Hindu-Muslim division. In my community in Mumbai, we used to live together with families of all religions and celebrate both Eid and Diwali together, that is how it should be. You cannot put these restrictions on people’s love, and if things don’t change, age-old prejudices will remain,” says Rani, Sharma’s wife.

Fortunately for the few couples who still venture into interfaith weddings, there seems to be a growing group of individuals and organisations, especially NGOs such as Love Commandos and Maharashtra-based Right To Love, that has joined the battle to protect these couples’ right to privacy and liberty. With several states passing such laws, ultimately the ball would come back to the Supreme Court which will have to settle this issue once and for all and ensure Constitutional guarantees become available to the interfaith couples.

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