Love jihad laws are a backlash to India’s own progress4 min read . Updated: 21 Dec 2020, 09:12 PM IST
It’s not a sign of increasing bigotry but the outcome of positive social and economic changes
The ‘love jihad’ ordinance looks like the latest weapon of the Uttar Pradesh government in its battle to further Hindu nationalism. A few other states led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are considering the UP model. Naturally, this morally and constitutionally abhorrent law has been criticized by many Indians. While I agree with the criticism, the diagnosis offered of anti-interfaith-marriage and anti-conversion sentiments has left me unconvinced. Most believe that the underlying cause is religious bigotry and hatred. But this bigotry was always prevalent in Indian society. In my view, the current angst is driven by social and economic change, and long-present bigotry manifests itself through such laws.
Historically, ‘love jihad’ was never a movement, because the possibility of interfaith marriage, in particular Hindu-Muslim marriage, was so limited. India is infamous for marital endogamy, especially caste endogamy, which maintains social control in an otherwise pluralistic society. Even during Nehruvian secularism, interfaith marriages, though allowed by the law, were not commonplace. Much of this had to do with society and parental emphasis on marrying not just within the same religion, but the same caste (jaati). The law of that generation also reflects this social control over marriage. The Special Marriage Act, 1955, allows individuals of different faiths to marry, but only after a month’s notice period. The couple’s personal details, address, intentions, etc., are widely publicized. It is almost as if the law was written by parents who needed some time to intervene and discipline their errant children. These procedural hurdles sometimes drove interfaith couples to convert their religion and elope.
Secularism to most Indians only meant living together peacefully in the aftermath of a bloody Partition, but it didn’t translate to intermarriage. Think of Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), that beacon of secularism nicely wrapped in Bollywood masala. Three sons, each raised in a different faith, can mainline blood to their mother. But each “hero" has the good sense to fall in love with a girl (Lakshmi, Salma, Jenny) of his own faith. This was the Indian pluralism model for decades: Bloodlines and mother’s love can transcend religion, but marriage is a step too far.
India always had religious hatred and bigotry without movements like ‘love jihad’, because religious endogamy was rarely threatened. Interfaith couples were few and far between and the state was not involved beyond the oppressive Special Marriage Act. But the fact that ‘love jihad’ is now a movement that’s changing laws means India has come a long way from the Amar Akbar Anthony model.
I don’t intend to look for a silver lining in this abhorrent law and practice, but that Hindu-Muslim marriages are a political issue is proof that India has made progress in weakening religious endogamy. A world where groups feel threatened enough to stop interfaith marriage is, perversely, progress for India, because it is also a world where interfaith marriages are increasing and socially accepted. Reactions to the UP ordinance—interfaith couples are sharing their wonderful love stories—confirm this trend.
India is stepping away from the world of Amar Akbar Anthony, and into the world of Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, where a young Muslim girl befriends a Hindu girl in school, elopes with her friend’s brother, and moves to a big city to raise secular children. The movie, released in 1995, was a sign of a liberalizing and urbanizing India.
Indian girls now are more likely to go to school and college than their grandmothers. More women migrate to cities for education and work. Their grandmothers scarcely had an opportunity to meet a man of a different religion or caste, let alone interact enough to fall in love; but this generation of young women can and do. Relative to their grandparents’ generation, fewer Indian parents exercise control over their children’s choice of partner. These are small steps, but it represents progress.
And this newly-gained exposure, education and choice (however limited) for women also means men must compete in the marriage market. India’s current mobs are not just against interfaith marriage, but more specifically against Muslim men marrying Hindu women. The reverse, Hindu men marrying Muslim women, is frowned upon but not as unacceptable.
The UP ordinance is not only about social control, but also a method of reducing competition for Hindu men in the marriage market. Unlike their grandfathers, who were born with a certain caste and land status and were assured a bride selected for them, this generation of Hindu men find themselves without jobs, and with the burden of status and aspirations that do not match their lived reality. Add to this the skewed sex ratio and “missing women" of India, and competition from Muslim men becomes the last straw.
It is telling that Bajirao Mastani (2015), where a Hindu man is in an interfaith relationship, was received very differently from Padmavat (2018), where even a hint of interaction or attraction between a Muslim warrior and a Hindu princess was considered intolerable. Both movies were based on historical figures, had the same lead pair of actors, and also the same director, but the aftermath was quite different.
Indians must fight the UP ordinance of social control. But it is also important to pause and understand that the turmoil is part of a larger social and economic change that’s positive. It’s not simply about hate.
Shruti Rajagopalan is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US