Organizations of the Hindu Right have depicted Muslim men as lustful sexual predators right from the 1920s
The dominant narrative surrounding the communal violence which inflamed Muzaffarnagar one year ago is that the stalking of a Jat Hindu girl by a Muslim boy spurred mass anger and retaliatory violence. This weaves into a mega-narrative of love jihad, suggesting that this incident is part of a larger menacing conspiracy of Muslims to target innocent Hindu girls, both to humiliate the Hindu community and swell their own numbers.
It does not matter that this story of sexual harassment of a Hindu girl in Muzaffarnagar is now proved a fabrication. After events which left a young Muslim man Shahnawaz and two Jat men Sachin and Gaurav dead on 27 August 2013 in village Qawal in Muzaffarnagar, the first information report filed by the families of the murdered Jat boys never mentioned stalking, only a motorcycle accident involving Shahnawaz and Sachin. Police investigations confirm that after a heated scuffle when their motorcycles hit each other, Sachin with his cousin Gaurav and a few others went into the Muslim enclave and stabbed Shahnawaz. Local onlookers managed to catch Sachin and Gaurav, even as the other killers escaped. Shahnawaz was rushed to a clinic, and when news came in that he had succumbed to his stab wounds, the crowd killed the two Jat brothers.
But this account was not emotive enough to construct a narrative of communal victimisation to foster hate. The story was spread instead that Shahnawaz was long harassing Sachin’s sister, and to avenge this humiliation, Sachin and Gaurav undertook the honour killing of Shahnawaz. A Muslim mob in turn cruelly lynched the brothers to death. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA Sangeet Som uploaded a video depicting the mob lynching of two young men in Sialkot, Pakistan claiming that the men were Sachin and Gaurav, and the murderous mob Muslims of Qawal. Most newspapers and television channels relayed this story uncritically, although Som’s video was proved to be bogus, and Sachin’s sister testified on NDTV that she did not even know Shahnawaz.
Once this story populated popular consciousness, it was propagated that this was not a stray incident but a larger trend—of Muslim boys in large numbers sexually harassing Hindu girls, and indeed that this was part of a larger sinister conspiracy of love jihad. Just ten days after the killing of the three young men in Qawal, a mahapanchayat was called with the theme “Beti Bachao: Save our Daughters". And these laid the pathways for the crucial third step, of justifying a retaliatory attack on all local Muslims leading to nearly 100 deaths, uncounted rapes, arson, looting and the fleeing of 50,000 people.
In my many subsequent visits to Muzaffarnagar, I find that for the Hindu residents, the actual facts no longer matter. They hold Muslim neighbours of generations vicariously guilty for a crime which never occurred, and a conspiracy of love jihad, which, by any rational evaluation, is a fanciful and mischievous charge. The claim is that Muslim boys are mobilised to romantically entangle innocent Hindu girls to convert them to Islam. This hate narrative spread across Uttar Pradesh (UP), and in the May 2014 general elections helped garner an unprecedented harvest of votes for the BJP.
Historians testify that organizations of the Hindu Right have depicted Muslim men as lustful sexual predators right from the 1920s and the Partition riots, but the term love jihad is newly minted. I first heard it used in Gujarat around 2006, when Bajrang Dal leaders like Babu Bajrangi (now convicted of mass murders in Naroda Patiya in 2002) declared their mission to ‘rescue’ Hindu girls in relationships with Muslim boys. It grew exponentially in popular discourse in coastal Karnataka, where activists of Vishwa Hindu Parishad would drag Hindu girls they encountered with Muslim boys to police stations, and shame them by summoning their parents and publishing their names in newspapers. The church and even a learned judge expressed concern about love jihad in Kerala.
And with its proven success in fostering enduring distrust between religious communities, it became the major staple of popular political discourse in UP. Hopes that the sobering electoral verdict in the recent UP by-polls would douse the ardour of love jihad propaganda are dashed with the ominous announcement by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, student wing of the BJP, that its members will vigilantly prevent love jihad.
It matters little that CID investigations into ‘missing’ young Hindu women in Karnataka found no evidence of any planned conspiracy by any community to romantically entrap girls of another community. The girls had voluntarily eloped variously with Hindu, Muslim and Christian men. It matters little also that when diverse communities live side by side, it is natural for some to fall in love outside the confines imposed by tradition and orthodoxy; and that girls—Hindu or otherwise— exercise agency. It matters little finally that the Constitution and law defend the right of adults to choose both their partners and their religious faith.
Indeed, Babasaheb Ambedkar believed that fraternity was as essential to India’s constitutional framework as liberty and equality. Tushar Gandhi recently recalled to me that the Mahatma each year would felicitate young people who married outside their caste and religion. I wonder what the two greatest builders of free India would think of a campaign which regards bonds of love between young people born to diverse faiths as a sinister conspiracy of evil.