Love or ‘jihad’? A consent dilemma
A new Uttar Pradesh law that is sweeping in its remit of forced conversions puts to the test the fibre of interfaith unions and the future of Hindu-Muslim couples.
He was a factory supervisor looking for a leg-up in his career. She was finishing her final year in school. They met at a tuition centre in the dusty central Uttar Pradesh town of Shahjahanpur.
It was the spring of 2017. He sat on the bench behind her; during a break between classes to prepare for competitive examinations, he asked her a question, she turned back to respond, and they started talking.
In April that year, the tuition batches were shuffled and she missed classes for five days, When she came back, he walked to the head of the class, said hello and asked for her phone number. She was taken aback for a moment, but wrote it on a piece of paper and gave it to him. On April 20, they spent all night on the phone talking; at sunrise, he asked her if she would date him – in local parlance, proposed to her.
She said yes. “In a few months, he knew what I wanted, how I felt, without me saying anything,” she added.
Mohammad Shamim and Simran Sagar’s love story could have ended there.
But in June, her parents caught her talking to him on the phone. Alarmed by the fact that he was Muslim, they confiscated her phone and quickly started looking for a suitable groom. Weeks later, she rejected the match they found.
She had graduated high school by then and started a job, but her parents forced her to quit. “They locked me up in a room, refused to get me go out. For six months, I had no contact with the outside world.” During this time, her parents beat her almost every day.
Eventually, she tricked her parents into letting her out, found a spare phone in the house and called Shamim. Over the next year, they plotted the future of their relationship – Shamim brought his family on board and the couple turned their attention to convincing her parents:
He moved to Delhi to get a better job and salary, she obeyed her family’s every order to soften them up. By this year, they were feeling confident they would get married, but a new law against forced conversions by marriage, coercion or enticement put a spanner in their plans.
“The atmosphere in Shahjahanpur became very bad. There were right-wing people in our locality opposed to interfaith relationships, they could do anything. Any whiff of our plans was enough for a first information report,” said Shamim.
“My family was connected to lawyers and our house is 500m from the [police] station, so I was worried that if they found out about Shamim, they would take him to police,” said Sagar. “We heard of so many cases. It was clear to us that we had to leave UP,” she added.
The concept of Love Jihad
The law they’re referring to is the month-old UP Prohibition Of Unlawful Conversion Of Religion Ordinance 2020 that spells out punishment of up to 10 years in jail for conversion by marriage. The law was in line with a promise made by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath to stamp out “love jihad”, a term used by right-wing activists to describe relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women, but one that the courts and the Union government do not officially recognise.
Shamim and Sagar had no plans to convert – he thinks a person’s faith is their biggest treasure – but they feared that if they applied for a marriage licence at home, then her parents and right-wing groups would file a case against them.
Under the 1954 Special Marriage Act (SMA), a couple has to wait 30 days from the date of filing an application and in Uttar Pradesh, notices go to the houses of the applicants, followed by police verification. “We never wanted to run away, but realised it was too dangerous. We could be jailed, I could be beaten up. We had to run away to Delhi,” said Sagar.
The new law has galvanised Hindu activists and many leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who say the ordinance was required to stop forced conversions and point out that eight other states already have anti-conversion statutes on their books. Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, both ruled by BJP, are bringing similar laws. But the law has also riled activists and opposition parties, who say it is unconstitutional because it practically outlaws interfaith relationships and bolsters “love jihad”. Judicial challenges to the law are pending before the Allahabad high court and the Supreme Court.
Drafted by the UP law commission, the new ordinance is sweeping in its remit of conversions.
Conversions using force, coercion, allurement, deceit and fraud are made non-bailable and cognisable offences, which means a police officer can arrest a suspect without a warrant and start an investigation without the permission of a court. Allurement can mean anything ranging from the offer of a gift or money to free education, employment, even the promise of a better lifestyle. Threatening divine displeasure is also outlawed.
Complaints can be filed by a blood relation, in-law or adopted relative of a person undergoing the conversion. Anyone deemed to have helped in conversion can be booked.
Burden of proof
The ordinance provides for imprisonment of between one and five years and a penalty of not less than Rs 15,000. In cases where a minor girl or a woman from the scheduled caste or scheduled tribe communities is involved, the imprisonment ranges from three years to 10 years and a penalty of at least Rs 25,000.
The law provides for voiding a marriage if it is found to be solemnised primarily to convert a woman. The burden of proof will be on the defendants. There are two other curious provisions: One, that if anyone “reconverts” to their immediate previous faith, it is not deemed to be a conversion. And, for repeat offenders, the quantum of punishment is doubled.
The law mandates a two-step verification process.
If a person wants to change their faith, they will have to apply to the district magistrate two months in advance. This is double the period stipulated in the 1954 Special Marriage Act.
The forms for these affidavits are meticulous – one has to provide name, both parents’ names, permanent address, current address down to the house and ward number, age, sex, occupation, marital status, monthly income, dependents, caste status, the faith one is converting to and details of the person performing the conversion. Once a magistrate receives this application, a police inquiry will be ordered to check the “real intention, purpose and cause” of conversion.
In the second step, the applicant needs to send a separate affidavit to the magistrate within 60 days of the conversion. The magistrate will then display a notice for 21 days to invite objections, after which the conversion can be confirmed.
The government is clear that the law was needed to protect women from harassment and fraudulent men. AN Mittal, chairman of the committee that drafted the law, said experts studied the law in south Asian countries, and rulings of the top court and high courts and existing laws.
“It will be very effective in checking such conversions and harassment of women. A victim woman or her family can now fearlessly go to the police,” Mittal said.
FIRs and arrests
Since November 28, at least 25 people have been arrested under 11 different FIRs lodged across nine districts. Mohammad Asif almost became the 26th.
The 24-year-old man worked at a medical store in the low-income neighbourhood of Duda colony on the outer fringes of Lucknow. Two years ago, Raina Gupta, the 21-year-old daughter of a driver and a domestic help, moved to the area and love quickly blossomed between the neighbours, whose houses were barely 15m away. The families agreed, and decided to solemnise the marriage on December 2. Between them, they spent Rs 85,000 to deck their exposed brick, half-finished houses with streamers and lights.
“The groom was following each and every ritual done in Hindu marriages, like tying turmeric bud on the wrists. The bride’s family had made arrangements for the wedding feast,” said a family friend on condition of anonymity. “Everything was going well until the policemen came.”
Around 8pm, police barged into the wedding, tipped off by local right-wing activists. Despite being told that both families had consented, the police dragged them to the police station, and told them to register their marriage under the norms of the new law. The families were let go after the couple assured the police that no one was converting their faith.
Additional deputy commissioner of police (ADCP), South, Suresh Chandra Rawat defended the police action. “The police didn’t intervene in anybody’s personal affair, but the two families were suggested to proceed according to the new law to avoid any inconvenience in the future,” he said. It was the police’s duty to enquire that there was no forced or dishonest religious conversion, and once the couple applies at the district magistrate’s office, a proper verification will be done of both families, he added.
But the incident has taken its toll on the families, who have withdrawn from all social interaction and are suspicious of every visitor. The couple still hasn’t applied for a licence under the Special Marriage Act and are reluctant to proceed without consulting lawyers. “They haven’t dared to apply fearing police action and trouble from Hindu outfits,” said the man quoted above. “They aren’t even stepping out of home.”
The right-wing argument
Proponents of the new law point towards the biggest case registered under the ordinance as proof that strict provisions are needed.
On November 30 in the far-flung eastern UP district of Mau, police booked 14 Muslim men from West Bengal under the new law on a complaint by a local businessman that his 30-year-old daughter was abducted to convert her faith.
The father alleged that Shabab Khan lured the woman, whose name was withheld by the police, a day before her marriage. Khan worked as a driver in the house, and was married, the father added. “He was part of a gang which lures innocent Hindu girls, exploit them physically and mentally, and then force them to convert,” he said.
A local resident said Khan was dismissed from his job by the father days before he started looking for matches for his daughter, and that the woman was in a relationship with Khan. Along with Khan, his wife, and 13 relatives and friends have been booked – five were arrested last week.
But activists point out that the couple could have eloped to escape the marriage that the father had planned, and that there was no proof of abduction, or that the woman didn’t consent to the relationship.
That shouldn’t matter, believes Baldev, a right-wing activist in Bijnor district who only gave his first name. The 22-year-old man is unemployed, but spends his days scouring neighbourhoods for interfaith lovers, specifically Muslim men accompanying Hindu women. He has a list of local landlords who report any “untoward” activities, and a contact in the local administration who keeps an eye out for any marriage applications or notices.
To Baldev, the protection of Hindu women is an essential part of social service because fraudulent conversions by “charming” Muslim men are a threat to society. “They don’t tell our sisters their real identity and lure them into relationships. Often, they have two or three wives. The law is good, but we also need to stop such activities in our localities,” he said.
He gets most of his information from local men in markets, and landlords and keeps his group abreast on WhatsApp on couples seen skipping classes, or out together. He keeps an especially sharp eye on Muslim-majority localities and on houses rented by young, working Muslim men. “We need to protect our faith, otherwise we will slip into a minority. We aren’t against love but against forced radicalisation,” he added.
On an overdrive
Many such vigilante groups, which have mushroomed in recent years, have gone into overdrive since the new law was promulgated. In two-high profile cases, in Moradabad and Lucknow, it was right-wing activists who first informed the police about an interfaith wedding. In a third case, in Kushinagar, the right-wingers tipped off the police but after the wedding was stopped, the authorities found that both the groom and the bride were Muslim.
“We only keep a watch on such instances. Whenever we come across such cases, we report to the police for further action. It is our moral responsibility,” said Brijesh Shukla, an office bearer of Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha.
What complicates matters are the strict rules under the Special Marriage Act in UP, where notices of marriage applications are sent to the permanent addresses of families, and a police inquiry is ordered in many cases. This is unlike the procedure in Delhi, where no such notices are sent.
“In many cases, fringe groups visit these marriage offices and follow up on the notices. By having photos and addresses of couples, these displays act as a direct threat to their life and privacy,” said Shubhangi Singh of the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives. The public notice provision is currently under challenge in the Supreme Court.
What most couples do, she added, is to get the help of middlemen who bribe clerks and lower government officials so that the notices are suppressed and not sent home. “This law has further emboldened those who oppose interfaith unions; the 30-day wait period and the police verification under the SMA needs to go,” said Asif Iqbal, founder of Dhanak, a non-government organisation that helps interfaith couples.
Interfaith relationships have always been rare – the religion of man and woman is different for only 2.5% of couples in India – and for most of history, it was not regulated by law.
The first interfaith marriage law was made by the colonial state in 1869 on the insistence of the Brahmo Samaj, a reformist movement. But under this law, you had to give up your faith if you got married to someone from another religion.
This provision was amended in 1923. Hindus could now have a civil marriage without giving up their faith, but they were disqualified from inheriting family property. The requirement to give up faith remained for others.
All these hurdles were removed in the 1954 Special Marriage Act.
A bureaucratic event?
“It was supposed to be a good law, but over the last 70 years, the bureaucratic hurdles have increased, mainly due to the rules enacted by each state government,” said Saptarshi Mandal, a professor at Jindal Law School.
He drew a distinction between the Special Marriage Act and the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act, under which no verification is needed and religious ceremonies are valid marriages.
“Marriage in all other laws is a religious event. In Hindu marriages, walking around a fire is held as valid, even photographs. Rituals in Christian or Muslim marriages are considered marriages. There is no stipulation for certificates. But in Special Marriage Act, marriage is made into a bureaucratic event,” he added.
To him, the bureaucratic process signals an inbuilt suspicion of interfaith unions in the law – which is also reflected in anti-conversion statutes in states across India.
“At one level, the UP law is nothing new. So much oversight on interfaith relationships is due to a fear of conversions. Ideally, if you respect religious freedom, then the decision to convert is a personal one. The state should keep out of it,” he added.
As a term, love jihad is relatively new and originated far away from UP.
It was first used by Christian and Hindu groups to describe a spate of alleged conversions to Islam in coastal Karnataka and Kerala in October 2009. The following year, then Kerala chief minister VS Achuthanandan popularized the term in a speech, and then in 2016, the conversion of Akhila Ashokan to Hadiya snowballed into a legal tussle that sparked an anti-terror probe and a landmark judgment by the Supreme Court.
But anxiety around interfaith unions in UP dates back 100 years.
In the 1920s, Hindu organisations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and Arya Samaj started printing pamphlets and handbills on abduction of Hindu women by Muslim men. Titled provocatively as Hindu Auraton ki Loot, these pamphlets hinted at a global conspiracy to pillage Hindu honour. The groups used posters, novels, myths, rumour and gossip for the theory to seep into small hamlets.
“This was between the non-cooperation and the civil disobidience movements, and there were several communal clashes and riots with the rising Muslim League. There was a targeting of the Muslim male and a disciplining of the Hindu woman with increased scrutiny on her behaviour and expression of love,” said Charu Gupta, a professor at Delhi University.
Rumours go digital
Many of these pamphlets carried minute instructions –don’t wear lac bangles because the business is controlled by Muslims, don’t buy groceries from Muslims, don’t hire them as teachers. Local newspapers were a key component of this campaign, which even targeted Muslim civil servants.
“This is not say that women were not cheated, they were, across faiths. Rumour mongering that was primarily in print has become digital, on WhatsApp, now. But the key difference is that it used to be a peripheral voice, but now the state is involved,” Gupta added.
Things came to a head in 1938, when the daughter of a prominent Hindu lawyer in Kanpur, Bimla Devi, eloped with the son of a Muslim merchant and converted her faith. The case roiled UP, and stoked communal tensions to the extent that the then British governor mentioned it to the Viceroy in two letters.
The police charged the Muslim man with abduction, and the case reached the Allahabad high court, but not before a smear campaign against one of the sitting Muslim judges.
“The sensational case rocked the UP press for many months. Many of the leading papers followed it graphically and gave lengthy details of court proceedings,” noted Gupta in her book Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India.
Eventually, the court awarded the woman’s custody to her parents; she was reconverted to Hinduism through shuddhi (purification ceremony) at the Arya Samaj temple in Kanpur, and married to a Hindu man. Not once was Bimla Devi allowed to appear in court.
Sagar and Shamim
In November, Simran Sagar hatched a plan. She told her parents that she was ready to end her relationship with Shamim and get married. She had just one condition: Allow her to get a job.
Her parents agreed, and within a week, Sagar escaped from her house, reached Delhi and was reunited with Shamim on December 11. With nowhere to go, the couple went to Dhanak for lodgings.
“It felt like a dream. Even though we were in a small room and couldn’t go out, we were with each other,” she said.
The couple have grand plans for the future – she wants to study computer science and he wants to get a better job and support her education. They want to remain in Delhi – she loves roaming around the city – but hope to regain contact with their families one day. “We know we did something wrong, so we will keep trying,” said Shamim.
After being denied shelter by the Delhi government, the couple moved the high court, which ordered on Wednesday that they be given protection and a safe house.
On Wednesday night, roughly 3.5 years after they first met, the couple moved into a government safe house, sharing a room and living together as a couple. They have to wait for a couple of months before registering their marriage, but they aren’t anxious. “It is a special moment for us; we want to show the world that there is only love between us, no jihad,” Sagar said.
(With additional reporting by Sudhir Kumar in Varanasi and S Raju in Meerut)