This is a winter of sorrow. A few hundred kilometres from the country’s Capital, children are dying in the cold, neglected and humiliated by an uncaring government, and in mortal fear of neighbours with whom they lived peacefully for generations.
Several thousand hate refugees in Muzaffarnagar survive under makeshift tents without clean water, elementary sanitation, healthcare and schooling. They are victims of communal misinformation which hinges on a myth so implausible and fanciful that it would be funny if it was not so dangerous.
This is the claim of ‘love jihad’, that good-looking Muslim boys are being trained in madrasas to trap Hindu girls into fake love affairs. They are then equipped with the necessary instruments for female entrapment — attractive clothes, trendy gadgets and motorcycles, all to lure unsuspecting Hindu girls into marriage.
The girls are then converted into Islam and used to produce large numbers of Muslim progeny. There are other versions as well, even more bizarre, that the love jihadi later uses the Hindu girl as a sex slave, or traffics her into sex work.
When I first heard the idea I found it incredible that people could actually believe it: it reminded me of TV advertisements which show girls surrendering themselves as willing sex objects the moment a young man applies a particular brand of deodorant.
The assumption is not just that Muslim boys are trained to ‘lure’ Hindu girls, but also that young Hindu women are empty-headed, lacking any agency or discernment, unable to protect themselves without the vigilant intervention of their male co-religionists.
I witnessed first the poisonous impact of this far-fetched propaganda in coastal Karnataka, in which Hindu nationalist vigilante groups track Hindu girls who are spotted in public spaces like a café, cinema or bus in the company of a Muslim boy. Volunteers of these groups attack the couple, drag them to a police station, inform the girl’s parents to shame them, and the media and police are often sympathetic to their vigilantism. This has generated widespread and now settled mistrust between the two communities in the areas around Mangalore.
Even more surprisingly, a segment of the clergy in Kerala has also accepted that love jihad constitutes a threat not just to Hindu but also Christian girls, and warned their believers to guard against Muslim boys tailing Christian girls. Incredibly this juvenile propaganda has successfully driven a wedge between the communities threatening centuries-old traditions in Kerala of pluralist co-living.
In a recent article, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) professor Mohan Rao reports that the ABVP (the student wing of the BJP) is distributing pamphlets warning Hindu students against the designs of their Muslim classmates in as enlightened, pluralist and cosmopolitan a university as JNU, Delhi. The social media in also crowded with dark tales of love jihad.
A typical pamphlet reproduced by Rao attributed to the ‘Anti Love Jihaad Front’ appeals to Hindu brothers to awaken and become vigilant. The pamphlet shows a bearded Muslim boy on a motorcycle, with a love-struck girl riding pillion.
It claims that Muslim boys assume Hindu names, even wear a saffron string and red tika on their foreheads, trap Hindu girls in the web of love, convert them to Islam, produce children with them, torture and ultimately abandon them. It cites the examples of ‘Bollywood’ actors Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan, who married Hindu girls, had children with them and then abandoned them. It even has a helpline number.
The latest and most dramatic and lethal application of false claims of ‘love jihad’ occurred in Muzaffarnagar. Most communal massacres can be traced to the spread of rumours which deliberately instigate hate and violence against the ‘other’ community. The communal blood-bath in Bhagalpur in 1989, for instance, was fanned by rumours that Hindu students had been slaughtered in their hostels, later proved completely false.
It is in the shadowy nature of rumours spread by word of mouth that it is virtually impossible to trace the source of these rumours. But today because social media is often deployed to spread hate falsehoods even more efficiently, it is possible to track the cyber-footprints of the rumours, as happened in Muzaffarnagar.
The facts are now clear and indisputable.
On August 27, 2013, in Qawal village, a motorcycle accident between a Muslim boy Shahnawaz and a Jat boy Sachin led to a bloody street skirmish in which Sachin’s cousin Gaurav also joined in, at the end of which sadly all three young men lay dead. Communal organisations spread the falsehood that Shahnawaz was stalking Sachin’s sister, and Sachin and his cousin killed him in righteous ‘honour killing’.
Sachin’s sister has gone on record that she did not even know Shahnawaz and was never stalked by him, but the media uncritically picked up and relayed the communally charged version. BJP MLA Sangeet Som uploaded a video of two brothers being lynched by a mob in Sialkot, Pakistan, and claimed that it was a Muzaffarnagar mob which brutally killed Sachin and Gaurav.
It took police 19 days to arrest Som, and he was released soon after, resurfacing triumphantly at a BJP rally where they were feted hours before Narendra Modi addressed the gathering.
Instead of firmly punishing those who peddle falsehoods, hate and violence, the state government is still in denial, blaming and labelling the victims and forcefully shutting their camps although they have nowhere to go. A love jihad, which was never waged, and stalking and honour killing, which never transpired, are the reasons why hapless innocent people are forced to suffer a bitter winter of exile.
It worries me profoundly that those committed to a project of dividing the two communities for immediate electoral gains can accomplish this so easily, and on such absurd and impossible hate mythology, and that people are willing to believe these obvious falsehoods enough to attack their neighbours and permanently block their return to their homelands.
Hate has vanquished for the present rationality, truth and fraternity. The people of India owe it to the people of Muzaffarnagar to wage and win a battle for justice and reconciliation.
Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies
The views expressed by the author are personal