Decentering the Discourse on Love Jihad: The Multi-edged Sword of the Hindu Right

By Anshu Saluja

In the midst of an unprecedented global health crisis, the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus in India, and with more than ten million infections in under 11 months, developing a calibrated, dynamic emergency response does not appear to be the sole concern guiding different provincial governments across the country. At this make-or-break juncture, many provincial governments are also being moved to prompt action by the putatively urgent need to legislate on instances of “love jihad,” an alleged conspiracy hatched by Muslims to subjugate the Hindu community and undermine its numerical strength. “Love jihad” refers to a conspiracy to entice and ensnare Hindu women in a trap of feigned love, presumably devised by Muslim men, operating with the sinister design of augmenting their community’s population at the cost of reducing Hindu numbers. Wide sections of the country’s electronic media have enthusiastically reported on what they consider to be cases of “love jihad,” justifying the need for stringent curbs.

These developments necessitate further discussion. At the outset, they beg the larger question—what is this “love jihad” conspiracy and how does it represent a threat to the very existence of the Hindu community? Here, I seek to unwind how Hindu Right’s conceptions of gender and reproduction flow into and shape the tirades around “love jihad.”

This alleged conspiracy forms a key constituent driving the agenda of the currently hegemonic right-wing majoritarian politico-ideological formation in India.  Fears of “love jihad” are meticulously fostered by the Hindu Right (Hindutva) forces. These fears are stoked and sustained by its chief political representative, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), along with its parent body, the Sangh Parivar, a teeming reservoir of exclusivist politics anchored to the idea of Hindu supremacy and envisioning the creation of a Hindu Nation or Rashtra.[1] In the lexicon of the steadily ascendant creed of Hindu nationalism, “love jihad” is now a catchphrase.

Recently, the state of Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous province, passed an ordinance against “love jihad.” The Chief Minister, who heads the state government, threatened those resorting to this alleged conspiracy, and, thereby, sullying “the honour and dignity” of Hindu women with dire consequences, even death. The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance 2020 is mainly concerned with preventing religious conversion “by misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage,” seemingly carried on by Muslim men as a part of the insidious scheme of “love jihad.”

The government of another state, Madhya Pradesh, often referred to as the heart of India on account of its central location, has promulgated a similar ordinance, with its Chief Minister highlighting the “need to stop forced religious conversions under the garb of love”. He reportedly said that it is “necessary to stop marriages that are being entered into with wrong motives through incentives, pressures, fear and temptation … BJP-led state governments were bringing about tough laws for those indulging in such nefarious acts”.

Likewise, a senior minister in the Haryana Government—a province which, in addition to facing the COVID-19 pandemic, is also in the throes of major farmers’ protests against a clutch of hurriedly enacted national agrarian laws—declared that “if there is a conspiracy for changing religion by trapping someone in love, then it is very important to stop that conspiracy.” Taking a cue from other state governments, working on similar legislations, he announced the setting-up of a three-member committee “to draft a law against love jihad” in Haryana.

Explaining the Conspiracy

The conspiracy of “love jihad” supposedly targets pliant young Hindu girls who are won over and lured into marriage through fraudulent means. The latter are made out to be so naïve as to be incapable of rational reasoning, which readily makes them succumb to deceit and trickery disguised as love. These in-marrying girls, so the rhetoric goes, are inevitably compelled to forsake the religion of their birth for the faith professed by their Muslim husbands. Thus, they along with the children who are born to them, are lost by Hindus to an encroaching adversarial faith. As a rule, these girls are assumed to have a raw deal—evidently, they suffer enormously in their affinal homes and face constant abuse.

I conducted a series of interviews, with women leaders and workers of different Hindutva organizations, affiliated to the wider Sangh Parivar.[2] They narrated graphic accounts of the torment faced by hapless victims of “love jihad.” For instance, a Durga Vahini[3] office-bearer plotted together various threads that framed the “love jihad”/ conversion axis and commented:

“Love jihad” is a means to augment the population of Muslims. It is a way for increasing the number of Muslims at the cost of Hindus … the Muslims have hatched a conspiracy. They generally target young girls … People unnecessarily blame Hindu organizations for rallying against love and preventing Hindu girls from marrying Muslim boys … An important thing is that they convert the girls, after marriage … A Hindu girl who gets married into a Muslim family has to wear a burqa [veil], her name is changed immediately, she has to follow their religious tenets, forsaking all her customs and traditions. She is compulsorily made to undergo all this … Muslim boys typically go for polygamous marriages. If they marry a Hindu girl, it is certain that they will also marry a Muslim girl later … So, from this point of view also, it is very hazardous for Hindu women to marry Muslims … A lot of times what happens is that in spite of facing grinding odds, these women continue to stay put in their affinal homes, face harassment, bear children and so on. Sometimes, they are even trafficked for money.

Built-up Anxieties

In Hindutva configurations, Muslims and Hindus are meticulously constructed in binary terms as two mutually conflicting collectivities, fundamentally at variance with each other. In view of this underpinning demarcation, relationships and alliances of Muslim men and Hindu women, proclaiming their “common humanity” especially irk Hindutva proponents. The obverse, that is, unions of Hindu men with Muslim women and associated acts of religious conversion, go entirely unquestioned, for they are assumed to be based purely on individual will, choice, and acceptance. These conversions are viewed as righteous mechanisms, ensuring the Muslim women’s ghar vapasi (reincorporation into the Hindu fold), concretising the cherished Hindutva belief that Hinduism is, to all intents and purposes, the real religion of the Indian people, the totalising force that binds them together.

Hindutva, like other ultra-nationalist movements, frames “women as cultural representatives” and as “carriers of authenticity” (Jayawardena and De Alwis 1996, xiii). Women are deemed to be the bearers of “tradition, culture and honour” (Tyagi 2014). Given these gender constructions and the overwhelming obsession with concerns of community honour and dishonour, which are invariably inscribed on female bodies, the marriage of a Hindu woman with a Muslim man seriously jeopardises established communal and sexual controls. Therefore, such boundary crossings have to be decidedly discouraged and Hindu women have to be warned of the dangers involved in associating with, befriending, and marrying Muslim men. The forces of Hindutva zealously fan and foster these dangers.

The “love jihad” rhetoric posits that Hindu women’s supposed gullibility and trusting nature leads them to be easily lured by Muslim men into marriage. Thus entrapped, they are subjected to different forms of oppression and exploitation in their marital homes. Hindutva activists are unable to countenance the possibility that such intermarriages can prove to be enduring alliances, based not on compulsion or deceit but on willing consent and choice of the partners. Expounding on the rhetoric of “love jihad,” one Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) member highlighted persistent efforts of the Hindutva brigade to block such marriages.[4]  She stated:

Muslims target our children, they become friends with our daughters to lure them away… Muslim men secretively carry on with this agenda of luring our girls. But, we [Hindutva activists] also remain on guard. Whenever we get the news of such a marriage, we try to establish contact with the girl concerned and her family… Those girls from our community who get married into Muslim homes face enormous exploitation. Their plight becomes terrible.

So, Hindu women and girls need to be warned and guarded, and their interactions with Muslim men deserve to be probed and policed. Spurred by these considerations, Hindutva proponents purposely haunt marriage registration offices; they rely on “a network of informers in police stations and courts” to get wind of impending interfaith unions, whereupon they swing into action. These self-proclaimed “warriors against love jihad resort to tactics ranging from disinformation to intimidation to coercion”  for stalling the marriage of a Muslim man with a Hindu woman. The VHP activist, whom I interviewed, further claimed:

Muslim men get high remuneration for luring away our girls. The Government of Pakistan rewards them handsomely. Their clergymen also pay them. It is a lucrative source of income for them. They want to destroy the highest strata of Hindu society. Pakistan Government pays money for luring away Brahmin girls.

High-caste Hindu girls—mainly Brahmins and Rajputs—are believed to be the prime targets of the “love jihad” conspiracy, while their lower-caste counterparts “are not seen as a good catch” in this sense, nor does the prospect of their entrapment and violation cause much perturbation to Hindutva activists. A foreign hand is imagined to be behind this conspiracy—Pakistan is assigned the role of a key conspirator. The “love jihad” discourse forcefully alleges that “Pakistan masterminds intercommunity love affairs with training that imparts seduction skills to Muslim men” (Sarkar 2018, 14). Pakistani authorities, working in close association with Muslim clerics in India, are believed to be the driving force behind the campaign of “love jihad,” while the inherently depraved and licentious Muslim men are regarded as its ready purveyors. Spurred by foreign backing and plump financial rewards, Muslim men are presumed to be operating with the objective of appropriating unsuspecting Hindu girls and filling their wombs with Muslim progeny. The ultimate ends guiding this campaign are said to be reordering India’s existing demographic profile and increasing the population of Muslims at the cost of falling Hindu numbers. The “love jihad” narrative is a potent vehicle for tapping into the underlying community and patriarchal anxieties of Hindus. The “fear of Hindu women losing control of their sexuality and falling prey to Muslim male desires” (Gupta 2000, 135) alarms the guardians of Hindu patriarchy. I interviewed a woman activist with a long history of association and involvement with diverse Sangh outfits. She went on to underscore the ominous possibilities, built into “love jihad”:

Muslim boys are trained to manipulate Hindu girls and marry them. This is a big conspiracy. They prey upon Hindu girls, and lure them away … Lists are circulated in mosques for luring girls of different castes …  Just as there are terrorists, we have “love jihadis” now … They are disrupting the Hindu culture. Muslims are increasing their population … Figures show that Hindus will become a minority by 2060. The threat of “love jihad” is looming large.

It is loudly claimed that Muslims are out to increase their numbers by all possible means, in order to reduce Hindus to the status of a religious minority in their own land. This discourse readily ties up with the overstated charge of polygamy that is often hurled by Hindutva organizations and functionaries at members of the Muslim community. These assumptions back and sustain “the demographic myth that the Sangh combine spreads so diligently: about excessive breeding by Muslims that will make Hindu India a Muslim-dominated country in no time” (Sarkar 2015, 291). Its ideologues habitually characterise “women, whether Muslim or Hindu, as baby factories” for their communities and “their respective cultural nations” (Bacchetta 1994, 198). The drive to keep a check on women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity, representing the future of the nation, creates the need to counter potential threats of their defiance of established boundaries and defilement by the “other.” This calls for an urgent reassertion of patriarchal and community discipline, exemplified in the flurry of measures against the alleged conspiracy.

In the ultimate analysis, stories of scheming and lustful Muslim men luring innocent and gullible Hindu women into a trap of loveless marriage, exploitation, and forced conversion, proliferate in Hindutva circles. These tales serve as a key rhetorical frame, being readily deployed and transmitted to a growing audience through a multiplicity of media platforms. The Hindutva propaganda machine concertedly churns out such material, seeks to insert it into the everyday common sense, and insists on the need to thwart the campaign of “love jihad.” Gupta designates “love jihad” as “an emotive mythical campaign, a delicious political fantasy, a lethal mobilization strategy and a vicious crusade—a jihad against love …” (Gupta 2016, 292).

Conclusion

Activists belonging to various human and civil rights organizations hold placards during a demonstration condemning the decision of various Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state governments in the country for the proposed passing of laws against “love jihad” in Bangalore on December 1, 2020. Photo by MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Allegations of “love jihad” function as a multi-edged sword for Hindutva proponents. Increasingly backed by legislation and the actions of a servile administrative machinery only too eager to please the political bosses, these allegations can serve to subdue and suitably chasten “the hypermasculine Muslim” (Ray 2007, 94). At the same time, they bolster pre-existing, if visibly contested, social codes and structures of authority, meant to keep an explicit check on “the autonomy of young people in general, for men as well as for women. Unsanctioned love undermines parental controls over the future of children. From parents, we move on to caste and community norms that firmly imprison the person within ever-widening matrices of authority and stifle individual will, desire and decision-making” (Sarkar 2018, 16).  Crucially, such controlling mechanisms become essential for “producing docile, submissive subjects,” unable or, at best, ill-equipped to challenge “regimes of power, be it parents and families, social norms, neoliberalism, religious majoritarianism or social hierarchies and injustice” (Sarkar 2018, 16). So constituted, these unquestioning subjects can prove to be trusted foot soldiers of Hindutva. They can potentially aid the beckoning project of the realisation of a Hindu Rashtra (Nation), a project that seems to be steadily advancing in people’s minds and hearts, at least in notional terms. And at opportune moments, the abstract and notional slide into and connect with the concrete and real in striking ways.

Dr. Anshu Saluja recently completed a Ph.D from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. Her work maps shifting dynamics of intercommunity relationships in South Asia and the gradual solidification of socio-spatial boundaries.

Notes

[1] The Sangh Parivar or family is the spearhead of majoritarian right-wing politics in India. A wellspring of Hindu Right’s driving ideologies, the Sangh is an intricate multifaced network of interconnected organs, active across diverse spheres—political, social and cultural. The boundaries of its affiliates and sub-affiliates remain purposely fluid, and members can shift from one to the other whenever required. Its nucleus is represented by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded in 1925. The Sangh combine aspires to create a Hindu Rashtra (Nation), the borders of which will presumably transcend India to devour the whole of South Asia and even beyond.

[2] The interviews were conducted in Bhopal, a thriving provincial capital and a strong bastion of Hindu nationalist politics. The Bhopal parliamentary seat has rested securely with the BJP since 1989. In the 2019 national elections, the Party went on to field Pragya Singh Thakur, a Hindutva hardliner and a terror-accused who had allegedly planned a bomb blast conspiracy in 2008 in a town in western India, from the Bhopal constituency. Thakur’s candidature generated much outcry, but she bagged this seat with a comfortable margin. Her victory bears striking testimony to the widespread appeal and popularity of the creed of Hindu nationalism in the constituency, together with the unstinted support that it crucially receives. The city of Bhopal has evolved, over time, into a field of credible political gains for the forces of the Hindu Right. Otherwise too, their ideological sway has been felt on the ground in powerful ways across different spheres.

[3] Durga Vahini, literally an army of Durgas (women warriors emulating a popular Hindu Goddess), came into prominence in the early 1990s during the phase of aggressive Hindutva mobilisation around the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute. Durga Vahini holds regular training camps for girls and women between the ages of 15 and 35. It operates on three key principles, viz. sewa (service), suraksha (self-defence) and sanskaar (cultural values). The organization imparts physical as well as ideological training to its members.  The promise of building and strengthening physical capacity, and gaining greater confidence in the process inspires young women, who often remain voiceless beings in their conservative and overbearing families, to join the ranks of Durga Vahini.  It focusses on “organising women and involving them in the task of consolidating the Hindu political community.” But, this preoccupation lays no groundwork for interrogating the extant social milieu from which the outfit’s members are drawn or challenging everyday internalised patriarchies, together with “various forms of gender oppression and discrimination” that continue to inform their lives. For more on the functioning of Durga Vahini, see Katju (2005, 335-41).

[4] Formed in 1964, the Vishva Hindu Parishad is the religious wing of the Sangh network. Counting several ascetics as its members, the VHP strenuously carries on anti-Muslim and anti-Christian propaganda. It seeks to target their religious symbols, and deter the influence of Western values on Indian culture and society. It counters, often violently, Christian missionary initiatives, particularly those under way in remote tribal belts. Its self-professed objective, as listed on its website, is “to organise – consolidate the Hindu society and to serve – protect the Hindu Dharma [Religion].” In order to build support for its underpinning agenda, the VHP has been intricately involved in regulating the functioning of different religious institutions, including temples and holding regular ritual celebrations. To gain a better understanding of the ways in which the VHP structure controls and manages variegated aspects of the ritual world of Hindus, see Sarkar (2012, 264-82).

Works Cited

Bacchetta, Paola. 1994. “Communal Property/Sexual Property: On Representations of Muslim Women in a Hindu Nationalist Discourse.” In Forging Identities: Gender, Communities and the State, ed. Zoya Hasan, pp. 188-225. New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Gupta, Charu. 2000. “Hindu Women, Muslim Men: Cleavages in Shared Spaces of Everyday Life, United Provinces, c. 1890-1930.” The Indian Economic and Social History Review 37(2):  121-49.

Gupta, Charu. 2016. “Allegories of ‘Love Jihad’ and Ghar Vāpasī: Interlocking the Socio-Religious with the Political.” Archiv Orientální 84 (2): 291-316.

Jayawardena, Kumari and Malathi De Alwis (eds.). 1996. Embodied Violence: Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia. New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Katju, Manjari. 2005. “The Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini.” In The Sangh Parivar: A Reader, ed. Christophe Jaffrelot, pp. 335-41. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ray, Raka. 2007. “A Slap from the Hindu Nation.” In Violence and Democracy in India, eds. Amrita Basu and Srirupa Roy, pp. 83-100. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

Sarkar, Tanika. 2012. “Hindutvas Hinduism.” In Public Hinduisms, eds. John Zavos, Pralay Kanungo, Deepa S. Reddy, Maya Warrier, and Raymond Williams, pp. 264-82. Delhi: Sage.

Sarkar, Tanika. 2015. “Violent and Violated Women in Hindu Extremist Politics.” In Pluralism and Democracy in India: Debating the Hindu Right, eds. Wendy Doniger and Martha C. Nussbaum, pp. 280-95. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sarkar, Tanika. 2018. “Is Love without Borders Possible?” Feminist Review 119(1): 7-19.

Tyagi, Aastha. 2014. “Vasudeva Kutumb?: Membership and Recruitment in the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti.”  Sub\Versions 2 (2). Retrieved from Vasudeva Kutumb: Membership and Recruitment in the Rashtriya Sevika Samiti – Subversions (tiss.edu) . Last accessed on 20 November 2020.

About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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