Narendra Modi: A false crusader for women's rights

India's ruling BJP wants Muslim women "liberated" but not their Hindu sisters.

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    Narendra Modi: A false crusader for women's rights
    In late December, the Indian government introduced a new draft law for criminalising the practice of 'triple talaq' within Muslim communities [File: AP/Rajesh Kumar Singh]

    These days, a popular joke making the rounds in India is that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) loves Muslim women, but not Muslim men. 

    The joke makes fun of BJP's attempts to portray its rightwing Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a crusader against religious orthodoxy, seeking to liberate Muslim women from the clutches of patriarchy.

    The BJP started crafting this narrative in August last year, after India's Supreme Court banned "triple talaq", or instant divorce, practised by some in the Muslim community. Four months after the Supreme Court decision, India's BJP-controlled lower house of parliament passed a bill that seeks to criminalise the practice. If the bill is voted into law, men found guilty of divorcing their wives through "triple talaq" could face jail time of up to three years. 

    The governing party believes it will deter men from resorting to the practice, and credits Modi for having the "courage" to reform Muslim personal law and challenge patriarchy.

    But it was easy for many Indian Muslims to see the hypocrisy in this claim.

    First of all, the bill was, at least in part, the result of decades of campaigning by Muslim women's groups and victims against the practice. Also, the contents of the bill led many to believe that it was put together not to help Muslim women, but further criminalise Muslim men - it allows anyone, not only the wife, to lodge a complaint, and requires the husband to pay maintenance to his wife even while he is imprisoned. 

    Second, throughout his tenure as India's prime minister, Modi has done nothing to challenge patriarchal practices affecting Hindu (and other) women. His party has opposed, for example, the criminalisation of marital rape, which according to BJP functionaries, "cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context".

    Modi is yet to speak out in defence of Hindu women dragged into the "love jihad" frenzy within some Hindu communities.

    'Love jihad'

    Hindu groups allege that "love jihad" is a conspiracy by Muslim men to lure Hindu women into marriages with Muslims, with the sole aim of converting them to Islam. Occasionally, they claim that radical Muslim groups are behind "love jihad".

    Late in December last year, in the city of Ghaziabad, near New Delhi, Hindu activists clashed with police while protesting the marriage of a Muslim man and a Hindu woman, which they claimed was an act of "love jihad". 

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    The bride's family insisted that the marriage was consensual, but BJP officials claimed that the families had not received "permission" to hold an inter-religious marriage, and it was a case of "forced conversion". The bride hadn't converted to Islam before the marriage, but they did not seem to care. 

    Even if she did, the couple did not need to ask for anyone's permission to get married, as the Indian constitution allows the country's citizens to convert to another religion. They were married under the Special Marriage Act, under which inter-faith couples can marry without converting. But this does not deter Hindu fundamentalists from targeting inter-faith couples and harassing - even violently attacking - any Muslim man who enters into a relationship with a Hindu woman.

    Also in December, this time in Rajasamand, Rajasthan, 36-year-old Shambhulal Regar hacked a 50-year old Muslim man named Afrazul and burned his body for allegedly attempting to commit "love jihad". Regar claimed he killed Afrazul "to save a Hindu woman from becoming a victim of "love jihad". The police later discovered that Regar mistook Afrazul for another Muslim man, who allegedly had an affair with the woman.

    The campaign against "love jihad" continues to get more brutal with each passing day. In January, three Muslim brothers were beaten at a court in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh - simply because one of them wanted to marry a Hindu woman. The assailants belonged to the Vishva Hindu Parishad, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent body of the BJP.

    According to RSS-supported Hindu fundamentalists, a Muslim man's love for a Hindu girl cannot be real. It has to be fake. It has to be an attempt to convert an innocent girl to Islam, recruit her for a "terror" group, or even transform India into a Muslim country.

    These claims, and Prime Minister Modi's telling silence on the issue, are fanning paranoia about Muslims in India. This paranoia is also hurting, and even killing, Hindu women that the proponents of the "love jihad" myth are allegedly trying to protect.

    Targeting Hindu women

    Earlier this month, in the southwestern state of Karnataka, a 20-year-old Hindu woman named Dhanyashree was driven to suicide by Hindu fundamentalists over a single photograph. 

    Her WhatsApp profile photograph was closely cropped with only her eyes showing against a black background. It created the illusion that she was wearing a veil. Members of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, BJP's youth wing, demanded that she remove the photograph.

    She was harassed and rumours were started that she was in a relationship with a Muslim boy. Unable to bear it, she committed suicide.

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    BJP officials, rather than seeking justice for Dhanyashree - as they allegedly do for Muslim victims of triple talaq - chose to defend the men who precipitated her suicide. 

    A BJP leader from Chikmagalur, C T Ravi, told Indian media, "What has happened in the Dhanyashree case is unfortunate. A worker of the BJP, Anil, has been arrested for it. But he has not done anything criminal; he has not committed any murder. He was just trying to inform the girl's family about the dangers of Love Jihad, which has claimed so many Hindu girls. His intention was not to provoke her to suicide."

    Dhanyashree is not the only woman victim of India's "love jihad" insanity. Across India, many other Hindu women are being victimised for their relationships with Muslim men.

    The alleged ISIL connection

    In August last year, Akhila, a Hindu girl from Kerala, who shared a flat with two Muslim sisters, converted to Islam, changed her name to Hadiya and married a Muslim man

    The Kerala high court nullified the marriage, after the woman's father filed a petition alleging that his daughter converted to Islam as part of a plan to send her to Syria, to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

    The high court said the girl was "weak and vulnerable" and susceptible to exploitation, and that "marriage being the most important decision in her life, can also be taken only with the active involvement of her parents". She was ordered to return to live with her parents. 

    Hadiya's husband went in appeal to the Supreme Court, which ordered the National Investigation Agency (NIA), a federal counter-terror outfit, to probe inter-faith marriages, including hers. Subsequently, a three-member bench of Supreme Court summoned Hadiya and inquired what she wanted. Hadiya replied, "I want to go with my husband. Nobody forced me to convert." She also expressed apprehensions that her parents wouldn't allow her to continue with her studies. The Supreme Court allowed Hadiya to return to her college.

    On January 23, the three-member bench further refined its position to say it could do little even if Hadiya had been "brainwashed". It added, "Whether it's an independent choice or not, only she knows. We can't get into it. If she comes to court and says she married by choice, that's the end of it."

    However, the NIA is to continue probing all other aspects of "love jihad" and is said to be probing 90 inter-faith marriages involving Muslims in Kerala.

    Kerala has been in the eye of controversy since 2016, when a 21-member group, including a few recent converts, left their respective hometowns to join ISIL. Hindu right-wing groups have been using this incident as a tool to criminalise all inter-faith marriages and infantilise any Hindu women who appear to have relations with Muslim men, by claiming that these women have been "tricked" or "brainwashed". 

    Women's rights promotion as a facade

    The BJP and Modi's liberal line on Muslim women's rights is nothing but a salve for a grievance that they have nursed and publicised, for their own interests, for decades.

    Back in the 1950s, Hindu personal laws were reformed by the central government, but those of Muslims were left untouched. The Congress party - heading the government at that time - took this decision because, following the bloody partition riots of 1947, it did not want to appear to be interfering in the religious practices of India's minorities.

    But Hindu groups claimed that the Congress refused to reform Muslim personal laws in order to garner Muslim votes. This made Hindus feel discriminated against, in a country where they are the majority. Today, for many Hindus, the criminalisation of triple talaq is a step towards righting this historical wrong. And Modi is now using this historical grievance to increase the support he has among India's Hindus.

    The prime minister knows that India's Muslims did not vote for him in the past and they are not likely to vote for him in the future. All he is trying to do is to make his base - Hindu nationalists - happy. It has nothing to do with his respect for Muslim women or women's rights.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 

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