On January 6, the Supreme Court of India declined to stay controversial laws recently enacted in several states to tackle “love jihad” – a baseless conspiracy theory accusing Muslim men of luring Hindu women into marriage with the aim of forcefully converting them to Islam.
Such laws are currently in place in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. Other states, such as Haryana and Karnataka, have also announced their intention to introduce similar legislation.
By allowing the so-called “love jihad” laws to remain in force, the Supreme Court increased the vulnerability of India’s Muslims, who are already subject to immense discrimination and religious persecution under the rule of Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Interfaith marriages and religious conversions are relatively rare in India – a Hindu-majority nation of 1.3 billion that is home to some 195 million Muslims. Nevertheless, in Utter Pradesh alone, since the promulgation of the anti-conversion ordinance on November 28, 86 people have been named in first information reports (FIRs) related to the law and 54 have been arrested. Of the 85 people booked, 79 were Muslim men accused of “enticing a woman and forcing her to convert to Islam”.
Merely a couple of days after the enactment of the ordinance, on December 2, police in the city of Lucknow violently halted a wedding ceremony between a Hindu woman, Raina Gupta, and a Muslim man, Mohammad Asif, that was to include both Hindu and Muslim rituals. The families, who supported the union, said neither was going to convert religion, but the wedding was still prevented from going ahead.
In mid-December, a Muslim teenager was arrested under the new law in Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor district after the father of a 16-year-old Hindu girl said the boy “induced his daughter to elope with him” with the “intention to marry and convert her”. While returning from a birthday party, the boy and the girl were attacked by a group of men and taken to the local police station. The Muslim boy was booked under the anti-conversion law and on charges of abduction. He was also charged under sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.
In another case, a Muslim man, Owais Ahmad, was arrested and sentenced to 14-day judicial custody for allegedly trying to pressure a Hindu woman into converting to Islam and eloping in 2019, following a case filed by her father. The woman is now married to a Hindu man, and Ahmad says he had “no link with the woman”.
And the new laws are being used to criminalise and harass not only Muslim men seeking to marry (or daring to have simple social interactions with) Hindu women, but also interfaith couples who had married long before the enactment of the legislation.
In late December, when 22-year-old Muskan, who was born into a Hindu family, and her Muslim husband Rashid went to register their marriage in the Uttar Pradesh town of Moradabad, he ended up in jail and the young woman in a state-run shelter home. Three months pregnant, she suffered a miscarriage. Later, the courts decided the couple were not violating any law and allowed them to continue living together, but the damage was already done.
Despite repeatedly warning their supporters against “love jihad”, the BJP leaders insist that their “anti-conversion” laws are not targeting any specific group and aim only to protect women from being “conned into interfaith marriages”. Nevertheless, as the above examples clearly demonstrate, these laws are achieving nothing other than victimising young couples and putting targets on the backs of innocent Muslim men and boys. Moreover, the laws are undermining India’s secular constitution and denying agency to women.
On December 15, the Allahabad High Court clearly made that point when it stayed the arrest of a Muslim man from Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar city under the state’s new anti-conversion law. The man, a 32-year-old labourer named Nadeeb, was accused of “trapping” a married Hindu woman into a “net of love” with the aim of converting her.
In explaining its decision, the court said Nadeeb and his alleged victim are “adults” who “have a fundamental right to privacy” and “are aware of the consequences of their alleged relationship”. It added that “Article 25 [of the Indian constitution] provides that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion, subject to public order, morality and health and to other provisions as Part III of the Constitution (that covers fundamental rights).”
“Love jihad” is not a new conspiracy. Since the 19th century, far-right Hindutva groups in India have been baselessly claiming that Muslim men are predatory. That they are working to seduce Hindu women to convert them to Islam. That they want to use Hindu women’s wombs to produce Muslim babies and alter the demographics of the Hindu-majority country.
These claims gained renewed prominence in recent years, due to the BJP government’s overt efforts to further marginalise Muslims and remake secular, democratic India into a Hindu nation. In 2018, as the “love jihad” rhetoric became part of the mainstream political discourse, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) conducted an inquiry into interfaith marriages in Kerala. The investigation, as expected, found no evidence of coercion in any of the cases examined. A similar investigation that was conducted in September 2020 in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, reached the same conclusion.
Despite there being no evidence of a Muslim plot to convert Hindu women through marriage, Hindu vigilante groups, with the support of state authorities, have long been working to prevent interfaith marriages. The Special Marriage Act of 1954 provides a clear legal framework for marriages between adults from different religious communities. However, authorities often refuse to register such marriages on frivolous grounds. They also make the couples’ names public during the registration process – a requirement Allahabad High Court recently annulled in a landmark judgement saying it is an “invasion of privacy” – allowing for Hindu vigilante groups to intervene and force the Hindu bride to return to her parents.
With the introduction of anti-conversion laws in several states, the BJP merely cloaked a continuing political project to criminalise and victimise Muslims in legal garb. Now right-wing vigilante groups openly work with the police to break interfaith marriages, undermine India’s secular constitution and, most crucially, put innocent Muslim men and boys behind bars.
From its contentious anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Bill to its criminalisation of Muslim “triple talaq” divorces, the BJP has made no secret of its desire to use legal means to silence, disfranchise and alienate Muslims in India. The new “anti-conversion” laws are just another weapon in the ruling party’s anti-Muslim legal arsenal and should be opposed.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.