In Ahmedabad last week, at two different locations, I saw this slogan written assertively—Hindu dikrio, love jehad (sic) thi savdhan! (Hindu daughters, watch out for love jihad). Someone had half-heartedly whitewashed the incendiary statement, maybe after someone complained, or (more likely) maybe because assembly elections were over and the alarmism had served its purpose. But the attempt to wipe it out was so poor that you could read the words clearly, as if the person removing it did so because he was told to do so, and not because he was outraged by it.

I was taken aback when I saw the statement scrawled across the walls along major roads of one of India’s largest cities. What kind of environment had enabled such views to be expressed freely? There are laws in India, after all, which restrict free speech if it causes communal disharmony. Those laws go too far in restricting speech, and they are applied unevenly.

There is the public order argument—Gujarat is, to put it mildly, a communally sensitive state. It promptly joined the states that banned Padmaavat. In India, taking offence is a right and an obligation the devout embrace with religious zeal. Even a harmless wink in a video was sufficient for some hypersensitive Muslims to sue. What makes such slogans, dripping with bigotry, exempt? What’s going on?

The warning on the Ahmedabad wall builds on the spurious argument popular among Sangh Parivar adherents, who assert—without credible evidence—that Muslim men are preying on Hindu women and luring them into matrimony, then converting them, with a view to shift the demographic balance of India. Indians have the right to discard their faith, a point Hadiya tried to make, but a high court disregarded her free will, second-guessing her choice. Even as I write this, Hadiya is arguing before the Supreme Court that she took the decisions—whom to marry and what faith to believe in—based on her own will, and she did so as an adult.

There is a more profound question. When Colin Powell was asked what his view would be if candidate Barack Obama was a Muslim, he replied, “So what?"

And that’s the only sensible response to someone hyperventilating about Hindus marrying Muslims—so what?

Demographic transformation? True, many non-Muslims who marry Muslims convert to the Muslim faith. Even if that is a major cause of concern for the keepers of the faith whose adherent marries a Muslim, why should it concern other Indians, and, indeed, the Indian state?

Underlying this is the fear that some day, in the not too distant future, Muslims will outnumber Hindus in India. Anyone who makes that calculation knows neither arithmetic nor demography. Anyone with a spreadsheet and rudimentary computer skills can compare the birth rates of the two faiths and extrapolate the populations of the two faiths in future, and make any outlandish claim. But such analysis can only be academic, because the birth rates of neither community will remain static. Besides, empirical evidence suggests that as income levels rise, birth rate tends to fall, and without getting waylaid into a discussion about growing inequality, the fact is that income levels are rising in India. Correlations don’t signify causality, but increased incomes and access to better healthcare coincide with falling birth rates.

What explains the in-your-face slogan I saw in Ahmedabad is plain and simple prejudice. Bigotry is not a virtue. Until a quarter-century ago, being prejudiced against Muslims was not something that people bragged about openly. But since the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and in particular the destruction of the Babri Masjid, it became acceptable in some circles of Hindus to say outrageous things about Muslims more openly. Jokes made in private, sniggering comments shared among a few, began to be articulated publicly. Cow-related violence has risen, as the data journalism website IndiaSpend has been documenting. It is in that context that the writing on the wall should be read.

And so it is that slogans emerge on Indian streets, which warn Hindu women that they should not fall in love with Muslim men. It was no coincidence that the same week in Ahmedabad I saw billboards put up by the followers of Asaram, the self-styled spiritual leader now in custody, which told the city’s young to celebrate 14 February not as Valentine’s Day, but as matru pitru puja divas, or the day to worship parents.

It was no coincidence because the slogan warning Hindu daughters and the billboard seeking celebrations of one’s parents emerged from a patriarchal hierarchy, which denied daughters their agency, which held that parents know what is best for daughters, and daughters should simply obey. Honour thy father and mother; marry as you are told; and don’t fall in love with the wrong kind—that’s the humourless message of the elders. It demands compliance, forgetting that respect is earned, not demanded.

It was, therefore, entirely fitting that on Valentine’s Day, at Senate Hall in Ahmedabad packed with enthusiastic students and others young at heart, three individuals—popular author Chetan Bhagat, lively Gujarati radio personality Devaki, and Gujarati social observer and writer Jay Vasavada—warmly endorsed romantic love. They spoke of liberal values which the Constitution upholds but which are challenged aggressively by regressive forces. Their voices were resounding; the applause in the hall was genuine. When the writing on the wall foretells gloom, it is the buoyancy of the young that affirms life. May that sound erase the smear on Ahmedabad’s walls.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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