Inside the Riot Machine
ohammed Reyaz was working in his family’s shop selling clothes when he met Priya Gupta. They both lived in Alipur Khera, a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Mainpuri district. They fell in love. But he was Muslim and she was Hindu, a fact that was impossible to ignore in UP’s communally charged political landscape.
What followed was a dramatic love story: it involved two elopements, the village council and even the police. Such are the challenges faced by UP’s Hindu-Muslim couples who are tagged as examples of “love jihad,” an unproven and controversial term popularised by Hindu right-wing groups that alleges a conspiracy by Muslim men to seduce and convert Hindu girls.
Although the term — “love jihad” or “Romeo jihad” — is new, the underlying allegations have a history. Charu Gupta, a history professor at Delhi University, found a similar campaign by Hindu right-wing groups in the 1920s, “ranging from allegations of rape, abduction and elopement, to luring, conversion, love and forced marriages.”
UP police also lump these wildly varying charges — from girls who allege sexual violence to parents who insist that their missing daughter did not voluntarily elope but was kidnapped — into a single category, according to records reviewed by the Hindustan Times. From a law enforcement perspective, what binds all of these incidents together is their potential to spark larger communal disturbances.
They are what police refer to as “low-key communal incidents,” small flare-ups between Hindus and Muslims that could spark violence but usually don’t. Amid increasing communal friction in UP, a variety of accusations and disputes have taken on an ugly color, including trivial arguments over the volume of loudspeakers at mosques or temples.
peak amidst riots in
Results declared for
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Couples like Reyaz and Gupta have a particularly hard time because they find themselves fending off not just angry relatives but also police cases. They came back from Delhi after they eloped the first time in June 2014 because Gupta’s parents had accused Reyaz of kidnapping their daughter. His parents, who said they feared being arrested given the mounting pressure from village elders, persuaded him to return. Gupta then appeared in front of a magistrate and swore that she had gone willingly with Reyaz. The case was dismissed, but her family refused to let her see him.
“We regret the timing,” said Reyaz, referring to an impending election at the time. Right-wing groups are often accused of brewing communal trouble with contentious charges such as “love jihad” as an election approaches. Reyaz and Gupta’s love affair too had fuelled tensions in the run-up to a by-election for a Lok Sabha seat vacated by ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The Hindus villagers of Alipur Khera — the village the young couple belonged to — held a panchayat and called for a boycott of all Muslims. Hindu right-wing groups claimed that “their” women were unsafe even in Singh’s bastion. (Singh’s nephew, contesting on SP’s ticket, went on to win the election.)
“Love jihad is a bogey raised with elections in mind because the right-wingers feel it can draw sharper lines between Hindus and Muslims,” said Gupta.
Seema Chauhan, a local leader in the Hindu right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has made multiple trips to the police station in Mainpuri to oppose inter-religious elopement. According to Chauhan, there has been a “spike” of “love jihad incidents” in Mainpuri in recent years.
“Muslim boys are told to entice our Hindu girls,” said Chauhan. “They are emboldened now because their bhaiyya (big brother) is the CM,” she added, referring to incumbent chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. “Our girls are simple and they don’t understand this ploy. We are trying to protect them.”
Inter-religious couples, however, say they are being hunted. Of the more than 12,000 low-key communal incidents recorded in UP since 2010, nearly 15 percent are spurred by cases involving women: from alleged sexual violence to elopement.
After the panchayat, about a month after they returned, Reyaz and Gupta were forced to flee again. They now live in Bhongaon, a nearby village, along with their 10-month-old daughter. Life is hard for the young couple. Reyaz takes on different jobs, from tailoring to retail, to make ends meet.
He often speaks of the six-thousand-rupee chair he used to sit on at his family’s shop in Alipur Khera — to him, a symbol of what he can no longer afford. The couple still worry that they might be in danger.
“Love jihad has drained out all the love that existed between Hindus and Muslims,” Gupta said.
It’s been two years since Reyaz and Gupta eloped, but their village is still not back to normal. “We have stopped interacting with each other,” said Sajjid Ahmed, a shop owner in Alipur Khera.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, held months before Reyaz and Gupta eloped the first time, “love jihad” was a major issue that polarised voters. Many wonder whether it will make a comeback as the state gears up for the assembly election in early 2017.
Sujith Pandey, the Inspector General of Police, said allegations of elopement and harassment are more common in western UP because the region has a “strong revenge culture.” Pandey’s evidence: he recently arrested a man accused of murder who had been promising his mother since he was seven years old that he would avenge his father’s death.
But communal incidents spurred by allegations that are often construed as “love jihad” — stalking, elopement, rape — are certainly more common in western UP than in other parts of the state. This is partly because communal incidents overall are the highest here.
The anxiety in Alipur Khera, however, is replicated in villages across UP where Hindu and Muslim identities have hardened beyond any compromise. Even the smallest of infractions was blown out of proportion as villagers sought to settle scores.
“If you don’t let me have my way, I won’t let you have yours,” was the motto followed by Ishaaq Ahmed in Sirohi in western UP’s Sambhal district. Muslim villagers wanted to install tubelights at the cemetery, but Hindus said no. “We asked them to continue with traditional oil lamps,” said Balram Singh, a villager. In response, Ahmed and his friends convinced the district administration to turn off the loudspeaker in the local temple.
“This is leading to a serious law and order problem with minor issues leading to communal tension,” said inspector Pandey. Miscellaneous incidents, typically minor altercations, accounted for more than 4,500 low-key communal incidents since 2010. The reasons range from stolen bicycles to public urination to kite-flying rivalries.
Earlier this year in Muzaffarnagar, Hindus and Muslims even got into a fight over a man who was chased by a dog. A Hindu man’s dog had made the mistake of chasing a Muslim.
Web production and graphics by Gurman Bhatia and Harry Stevens.
Inside the riot machine
A three-part investigation by the Hindustan Times