It came as a surprise, not because of what was being said, but who was saying it.
“It is so common. They call themselves Sonu Bhai, Pappu bhai, and they wear red hand bands to appear like Hindus. And then they trap our girls,” said a prominent journalist in west UP. He then opened two files of a Hindi newspaper of the past few months. Pages 2 and 3, dedicated to local news, were littered with stories about Muslim boys and Hindu girls getting together, or strong statements by parents opposing such unions. Don’t Hindu boys get together with Muslim girls or did the media not report it? “No, our boys are too sanskari (cultured),” he replied.
A few hours ago, the head of Bajrang Dal in west UP, Balraj Doongar, had put forward the Sangh’s favourite theory of ‘love jihad’— of Muslim men getting Hindu women. The fact that a mainstream journalist was repeating the theory showed how this narrative was spreading.
But the other side appeared as bitter and extreme, for in Budhana, we met Haji Dilshad, a tyre shop owner, who was sitting with a group of men. When asked why women were at the centre of so many disputes, Dilshad said, “This boy and girl business has always happened. But it does not mean we can accept it. Hindus should stay with Hindus and Muslims with Muslims.”
But was it true that it was usually Muslim boys and Hindu girls and not vice versa who got together? Dilshad responded angrily, “Their women came and were lying on this very cot right after the evening namaaz sometime back. Who is trapping whom?” His son, an 18-year-old Mohammed Umeed, added, “Go to rural areas. And you will find it is the Hindu boys who take our women.”
When asked, half jokingly, if he had a girlfriend, Umeed turned serious and responded with a categorical no. “Women should be kept inside. My sisters are all at home, and whenever we have to get something from the bazaar, I go out, not them.” His father corroborated, “I have not taught them beyond Class 5. Their job is to cook food. The entire problem is that the purdah system has ended.” He then paused and said, “Our girls have fallen too.”
Another young boy, Umeed’s friend, came in at this point, “Why do they wear such clothes? I don’t go around in shorts.” But wasn’t the onus on men to remain restrained and respect their choice?
While religion and politics have been reported as primary drivers of conflict in the battles in west UP, gender remains as important a fault line. Reports of the many cases of molestation and rape during the riots of last year testify to how sexual assault was seen as a way of exercising political power. The inability of Hindu and Muslim men to cope with the idea of free will is another facet of the same story.
The region is demographically mixed; there are increasing opportunities for men and women and boys and girls of both communities to interact. They meet in schools and colleges, they can keep in touch through technology, the line between rural and urban is collapsing, and they are all exposed to a culture — through mass media — where falling in love and experimenting with sexuality is not necessarily a crime.
Ritu (name changed), a college student in Moradabad, makes an important distinction. “Harassment and rape by anyone irrespective of his religion must be punished, but our parents and communities need to understand that two adults must be allowed to make their decisions regarding love and marriage.” Back in Muzaffarnagar, at the Shahpur police post, chief AP Gautam, said, “Wherever it clicks for someone, it happens. It is a matter of chance. The two people see religion later, but what to do if their families and communities make it a source of conflict.”
What is happening in west UP is a microcosm of the cultural transformation taking place across India. But mixed with deep religious polarisation, chauvinistic ideologies, and a weak administration, the gender wars have taken an altogether more violent form.