‘Love Jihad’ has become part of the political lexicon in Uttar Pradesh. But is there more to it than scaremongering with an eye on harvesting Hindu votes? Virendra Nath Bhatt finds out

Strident campaign Bajrang Dal activists protest against ‘love jihad’ in Muzaffarnagar, UP

Conjugal relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women may become a scary proposition in 21st century India with the BJP raising the pitch on what it calls ‘love jihad’. The trope has come to represent the fears of the majority community in India, especially in Uttar Pradesh, aggravated by allegations that some members of ‘sleeper modules’ of Islamic terror outfits are using love as a tool in a campaign to convert Hindu women to Islam.

Even as ‘love jihad’ has become a part of the political lexicon in India’s most populous state, the BJP’s opponents are crying hoarse that the saffron party is going all guns blazing on the issue in order to create hysteria and polarise the electorate along religious lines. What lends credence to this view is that the voices against ‘love jihad’ have grown louder at a time when bypolls are scheduled for 11 Assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh on 13 September.

However, undeterred by criticism from rival political forces, BJP leaders openly discussed the “menace” at the party’s recently concluded two-day state executive meet at Vrindavan near Mathura. The party, though, stopped short of making any direct reference to ‘love jihad’ in the political resolution adopted during the meeting. The reason could be that as the ruling party at the Centre, it chose formal discretion as the better part of valour.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the party is going to relegate the issue to the backburner in its election campaign in the constituencies going for bypolls. After all, its pitch on ‘love jihad’ has won it many admirers among Hindus, especially in western Uttar Pradesh. It has helped the party find a place in the hearts of many Hindu parents who have suffered social stigma after their daughters were lured by Muslim youth posing as Hindus. This has indeed deepened the anxiety among large sections of the educated urban middle-class Hindus.

Islamic scholars, however, refute the very notion of ‘love jihad’ and point out that their religion has no place for it. They see the BJP’s pitch on the issue as a hate campaign targeting Muslims for political ends.

The Sangh Parivar’s espousal of the term ‘love jihad’ and the BJP’s attempt to put the highly divisive issue on the political centrestage have prompted many observers to wonder whether such a phenomenon really exists in Uttar Pradesh, or whether it is just a case of making a mountain out of a molehill. There have been a few incidents of inter-religious marriage where Muslim men lured Hindu women by posing as Hindus, sporting a tilak on the forehead and sacred threads on the wrist. BJP leaders claim that it is an organised conspiracy funded by petro-dollars from Arab countries.

That the issue touches raw nerves is evident from the fact that both sides are quick to claim the existence of documentary evidence to press their case. The issue has certainly proved to be a convenient means for communal polarisation ahead of the crucial bypolls.

Opponents of the BJP see the issue as a manifestation of the “anti-women” mindset of the Sangh Parivar as it reveals a poor opinion of Hindu women, who are by default projected as being incapable of making the right choice in a matter so crucial to their lives. “Are Hindu girls so gullible that they can be lured into love by anyone and then made to change their religion?” asks CPI leader Ashok Mishra.

But such views find little traction among people in western Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the state that have witnessed numerous instances of communal violence or tension in the past 30 months under the Samajwadi Party regime. It is in this backdrop that the idea of ‘love jihad’ as a sinister design against the majority community has found many takers.

Ashutosh Mishra, who teaches political science at Lucknow University, acknowledges that while politics has indeed played a part in popularising the issue, the existence of the phenomenon itself cannot be denied. “It has ruined many Hindu families,” he says, “but it was only after the BJP took up the issue that it was played up in the media.” Mishra points out that in Kerala, too, chief ministers from the Left Front as well as the Congress-led United Democratic Front have been voicing their concern over the issue for several years now.

“The broader political context right now appears to be western Uttar Pradesh and the forthcoming bypolls,” says Khalid Anis Ansari, professor of law at the Glocal University, a private educational institution in Saharanpur. Ansari, however, warns against viewing the issue through a “convenient secular-communal binary”. “Both sides in the debate are dominated by the upper castes and the discourse only helps to strengthen the hegemony of the elites,” he says.

At the Vrindavan meeting, top leaders of the BJP minced no words in accusing Muslims of running a campaign to lure Hindu women and convert them to Islam. The speeches of state BJP president LK Bajpai, Rajya Sabha MP and Bajrang Dal founder Vinay Katiyar and Union Cabinet minister Kalraj Mishra were replete with references to ‘love jihad’. All of them categorically accused Muslims of indulging in it. They also held Muslims responsible for the growing incidents of crimes against Hindu women, especially rape and molestation.

Discreet measures? The resolution adopted at the BJP’s state executive meet didn’t mention ‘love jihad’, Photo: Pramod Singh Adhikari

The political resolution passed at the meeting eschewed the term ‘love jihad’ but did not shy away from claiming that persons of “a particular community” were behind “99 percent of the cases of crime against women”. It dismissed the Samajwadi Party’s criticism of its stand on the issue as an instance of the “selective secularism of Saifai socialists” (Saifai is the hometown of SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.) The resolution also accused the Samajwadi Party government of “shielding men belonging to a particular religion who commit crimes against women from a particular community”.

“The BJP has done nothing wrong by raising the issue of ‘love jihad’ for ensuring the safety and protecting the honour of Hindu girls,” Bajpai told TEHELKA. “How can the government justify the conversion and rape of Hindu women? Do the men from the minority community have a licence to convert and rape women of the majority community?”

On being asked why the political resolution did not explicitly mention the term ‘love jihad’, the BJP leader retorted, “We have the right to set our agenda. We do not do it after consulting the media. The exact words may not be there, but it has been covered in the resolution in a comprehensive manner and this issue does figure prominently on our agenda.”

On being reminded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for a 10-year moratorium on divisive caste-related and communal issues, Bajpai was quick to reply, “But the prime minister has also not permitted illegal activities to be carried on under the garb of religion.”

Having won an unprecedented 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP is now clearly aiming for the throne in Lucknow. With an eye on that goal, the party has asked its cadres in the state to launch a no-holds-barred battle for the protection of Hindu women and against the appeasement of the minorities by the Samajwadi Party government.

While BJP leaders justify their strategy by pointing out that any political party that has the interests of the people in mind would be concerned about the deteriorating law and order situation and do everything it can to ensure the safety of women, Muslim leaders take it with a pinch of salt. “Love jihad is a medieval construct. Why should crimes against women be seen through a communal lens?” asks Kamal Farooqui, member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. “Anybody who marries a girl through fraudulent means should be brought to justice. But the BJP is more interested in using the issue to mobilise people for its political ends.”

Zafaryab Jilani, additional advocate general of Uttar Pradesh, says “the BJP is aware that it stands to gain politically by promoting communal polarisation and its campaign against ‘love jihad’ is a part of that effort.”

Lucknow-based political analyst AK Verma, however, has a different take on the issue. “There is nothing wrong as long as an inter-religious marriage is acceptable to both the parties involved,” he says. “Instead of giving it a communal colour, the police should investigate specific cases to find out if any fraudulent means has been employed.”

Despite the diversity of opinions on the issue, it is clear that ‘love jihad’ will remain on top of the political agenda in Uttar Pradesh in the days ahead, given the emotional connect the BJP’s campaign has managed to achieve with a large section of the electorate.

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See who’s talking of ‘love jihad’

Contrary to popular perception, the BJP and Hindu organisations are not the first to rake up the issue of religious conversion in the name of love. Christian organisations in Kerala and Karnataka, besides the Global Council of Indian Christians, too, have voiced their concern on the issue. Moreover, dispatches from US diplomats posted in Chennai to the American government, revealed by WikiLeaks, also mention ‘love jihad’.

In fact, the term is said to have been used for the first time in India in July 2010 by the then chief minister of Kerala and veteran CPM leader VS Achuthanandan, who accused Islamic fundamentalist outfits such as the Popular Front of India of “using money and marriages to make Kerala a Muslim-majority state”.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council claims that Islamic outfits have targeted over 4,500 girls in Kerala alone. In 2012, CM Oommen Chandy told the Kerala Assembly that “2,667 young women, including 492 Christians, were converted to Islam during 2009- 12”. He was responding to a question tabled by CPM MLA KK Latika.

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 36, Dated 6 September 2014)