Three days after the Muzaffarnagar riots broke out last year, this reporter found himself with the Bajrang Dal head of western UP, Balraj Singh. We were sitting in a cab in Meerut, and he explained what he saw as the roots of the tensions in the area.
“Like in Kashmir, Muslims want to take over the state. They want to take over Hindu property, and Hindu women through love jihad.” The exact phrase was echoed a bit later by Chandra Mohan Sharma, the VHP joint general secretary of the Meerut division. Near the Khatauli railway station, he deployed a trope that has now became a favorite of the entire Sangh Parivar machinery – of Muslim men disguising themselves as Hindus, dressing up well, trapping and marrying Hindu women, all in order to increase their population and change the demographic balance.
Even though the Muzaffarnagar violence was triggered by precisely this message – of how Muslim boys had teased a Hindu girl, it was still possible to dismiss love jihad as a fringe conspiracy theory.
It ignored the sociology of the region, where Muslims constituted a significant segment of the population, and it was inevitable that young men and women of both communities would meet. It ignored the impact of mass media, which had exposed the young – across the gender and religion divide – to pre-marital relationships, and even made it something to aspire for. It ignored empirical data, for there was no evidence to show this was happening on a large scale or it was a one way street where only Muslim men and Hindu women got together and not the other way round. It also portrayed women as mere objects to be ‘trapped’, ‘captured’ or ‘defended’ rather than as autonomous agents.
But if one had thought that this would fade away as a political tool, one could not have been more mistaken.
In a year, the love jihad theory has become an official element of the BJP’s campaign in UP. It has spread far and wide, to the extent that journalists and civil society leaders in towns like Muzaffarnagar repeat it as the root of all troubles. Patriarchy and communalism have come together in stark ways – where even instances of voluntary relationships are converted into ‘rape cases’ because families would rather have their daughters be seen as victims than accept their choice of men from other religions.
And it is not merely confined to the Hindu right. Last month, in Budhana of Muzaffarnagar, a Muslim middle aged man told HT that it was the Hindu women who were doing their best to trap Muslim men. He admitted ‘our women’ also went out with Hindu men. And his solution, “Bring back the purdah, lock women inside homes, make them cook, stop their engagement with the outside world.”
Issues like Babri Masjid were often abstract for even citizens sympathetic to the cause. But the issue of ‘love jihad’ strikes deep in every home, introduces a toxic element in inter community relationship in the neighbourhood and the village, and allows fundamentalists to deny women their freedom. The fact that this has become a mainstream agenda, from a fringe agenda, in one year, tells us where society is headed.