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Home >Opinion >Columns >An anti-interfaith-marriage law should be called out for what it is

Let us call it what it is. The Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, the law Uttar Pradesh has passed, which criminalizes consensual interfaith marriage, is exactly that—a law that makes criminals of people who fall in love with people whose beliefs differ. It has been given an attractive moniker, easy to remember, which can be turned into a hashtag on social media for people to rally around. Many Indians are incensed by interfaith unions, even though there is no evidence that it is a societal ill, nor are there any statistics to show its rising incidence. It is legislation in search of a problem that does not exist. It is a tool of harassment in the hands of a police force which has been notoriously inept in controlling crime. And it is playing out as another instrument to intimidate Muslims. This, in a state where 19% of the population is Muslim and where the legislature has only 24 Muslim legislators, not even 6% of the total, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not have a single Muslim legislator.

The malevolent law relies on the prurient myth popular among right-wing conspiracists, that Muslim men are preying on Hindu women, luring them away, making them go astray, marrying them, and converting them. Horror of horrors, that would make Hindus a minority in “their own land" some day in the distant future. How distant a future that is, depends on whether you are strong at mathematics as understood by those who have studied maths, or strong at an alternative form of it that comes up with metaphysical explanations for simple questions such as what is two plus two. Reality is maya, after all, illusory, and the answer depends on what you want it to be, or what you want to believe it to be. Anecdotes replace analysis and rumours replace rigour. There may not be any evidence, but as the conspiracists would put it, the absence of evidence does not indicate any evidence of absence.

And so a society suddenly wants to protect women, even though it devalues women before they are born, where girls receive less nutritive food, where they are more likely to drop out of school, more prone to be expected to help in the kitchen instead of studying for the same exams their brothers do, certain to be harassed, bullied, molested or worse, expected to marry when their parents find a suitable boy. And it does it in the most cynically patronizing way possible—how can you rely on a woman’s choice of who to marry? Surely, a woman cannot have a mind of her own? How would she know what’s good for her? And so her parents or elders are considered “aggrieved parties", with a right that the state must honour over the right of the woman.

That right has been under threat for some time. Recall the infamous Hadiya case of 2017, of a woman in Kerala formerly known as Akhila Ashokan who decided to marry a Muslim man called Shafin Jahan and decided to convert to Islam and became Hadiya. Her father insisted she was brainwashed and sought annulment of the marriage, which the Kerala High Court granted, restoring her “custody" to the father. It took ten months for Hadiya to regain her freedom, when the Supreme Court restored her marriage. That was then. Today, despite the apparent unconstitutionality of UP’s law, can one presume what courts might say on such a case?

Meanwhile, UP’s finest have taken on the implementation of the law in right earnest. The heartbreaking story of Muskan, who had a Bachelor’s degree, worked in a company in Dehradun and met Mohammed Rashid, who ran a salon, shows everything that is wrong about the law. Muskan met Rashid, fell in love, and they got married. Soon, she was pregnant. Meanwhile, armed with the law, the police arrested Rashid, and Muskan was taken to a shelter home for women for a few days. Muskan says that at the district hospital in Moradabad she was injected with abortifacients and she miscarried. The hospital denies the charge, but its credibility was undermined by the hospital’s earlier denial that Muskan had miscarried, although her subsequent ultrasound examination at a private clinic in Bijnor provides evidence that she indeed had.

The UP law infringes people’s rights to privacy, choice of partner, and freedom of conscience. Religion, after all, is an idea; one can believe it, disavow it, disregard it, embrace another idea, or choose not to embrace any religious idea at all. Not only is that consistent with respect for the individual’s dignity, it is also consistent with freedoms assured by the Indian Constitution.

To be sure, forcing anyone to marry someone is wrong and should be illegal. Likewise, forcing someone to adhere to any specific religion is wrong and should not be legal.

But what is forced or not is best understood when others listen to the person they are trying to protect. The UP law on interfaith marriages ignores an individual’s autonomy. It strengthens regressive authority. Its effect has been to frighten a religious minority with the prospect of subjugation. And it draws from the belief that those who make up nearly half of India’s adult population—its women—cannot be trusted to decide what’s good for them. Such a repressive law deserves scorn and needs to be repealed.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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