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IS LOVE JIHAD THE NEW MONSTER TO INCREASE THE RELIGIOUS DIVIDE

Inter-religion marriages have never been easy for the Indian middle-class. Parental anger, societal pressure and wrath of religious custodians have always disapproved marriages involving two people from different faiths.

Although marriage is a union between two people wherein technically no one should have any business to give an opinion. But, since 2009 inter-religion marriages have acquired a monstrous form and the issue has snowballed into a major nationalist issue. It has become one of the biggest ‘problems’ for leaders claiming to safeguard Hinduism ever since the term Love Jihad emerged as a national crisis.

With the divide between Hindu and Muslim increasing, Love Jihad has emerged as yet another private issue, which is being labelled as a conspiracy by the Muslims to convert Hindu women. This came to media prominence in 2009 when Hindu groups alleged conversions taking place in Kerala and Mangalore, although there was no evidence to support these claims. Hindu Janajagruti Samiti claimed that 30,000 girls had been converted in Karnataka and many cases have come to fore in Kerala and Mangalore. It was a claim without substantial evidence.

Similar ‘trends’ were reported in Pakistan and United Kingdom and as per an opinion piece by Liberal Politics blogger Sunny Hundal, an anonymous leaflet, (claimed to be owned by Hizb-ut-Tahrir), urged Muslim men to seduce Sikh girls to convert them to Islam.

Accusations of Love Jihad were directed at Bollywood too, as three superstars Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan were accused of marrying Hindu women in a bid to convert them to Islam. Shah Rukh’s wife Gauri is still a Hindu, Aamir’s wife Kiran Rao is an atheist while Kareena Kapoor practices Christianity, according to reports.

In January 2015, Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s women’s wing- Durga Vahini used Kareena Kapoor’s morphed pictured half covered with burqa to highlight Love Jihad. Durga Vahini used the marriage of Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor to support their belief that such a  marriage was ‘conversion of nationality through religious conversion’.

The Indian civilisation has long practised arranged marriage system, where most nuptials are decided by the family elders on the basis of caste, sub-caste, creed, religious, family stature, reputation, social status, and more.

However, the way Love Jihad is being promoted as a ‘real threat’ by the fringe groups, it has created fear and division in the society on communal lines. While Muslim leaders in 2014 dismissed these allegations as a rhetoric around the alleged conspiracy as a campaign of hate, some Hindu groups are hellbent on alleging prevalence of mass conversion in several parts of the country.

Feminists voiced concerns that efforts to protect women against the alleged activities would negatively impact women’s right and deprive them of making free choices.

Amid the heated debate of Love Jihad gripping the nation, popped up the curious case of Hadiya Jehan -born as Akhila Ashokan in a Hindu family, a 25-year old Homeopathy student from Kerala, whose conversion to Islam followed by marriage to a Muslim boy Shafin Jehan, 26, was met by a media frenzy.

The conversion case grabbed national headlines with clerics and women activists debating freedom of choice vis-a-vis religion. Hadiya’s father KM Ashokan, an ex-army man and an atheist filed a case in Kerala High Court and contended that Hadiya had been indoctrinated by radical groups. Reports suggested that Hadiya talked of working on a farm in Syria, and her father feared that Jehan would smuggle her out of Kerala to take her to Syria.

Hadiya recently testified at the Supreme Court, narrating her distress as she was kept under confinement by her parents. She demanded to stay with her husband. The Apex court has fulfilled part of her demand to pursue her internship at the college in Salem while her Dean has been appointed as her guardian. As per the court ruling, Hadiya will neither be staying with her parents nor with her husband, as of now.

Hadiya’s case has again fuelled the debate on mass conversion in some parts of the country. There has been the public outcry as Hadiya’s father, and the National Investigative Agency (NIA) has been hinting at a larger conspiracy. While social activists and women’s rights campaigners have condemned the Court’s decision as ‘patriarchal’ demanding more free will to Hadiya, her father’s lawyers continue to term it as a conspiracy. Women activists, on several news channels, expressed their opinion that the age-old system of parents deciding upon the groom should be completely abolished and each person should be allowed to practise the faith of his/her choice and should also be given the liberty to decide her partner.

The Indian legal system offers the provision of Special Marriage Act for people from any faith, nationality and religion to exchange wedding vows without obstruction, so lawyers claim that there is no need to convert anyone for the wedding. Those hinting at the conspiracy of Love Jihad want people from different faiths to be married under the Special Marriage Act, instead of forcing the partner to convert.

A sting operation by India Today lifted the veil off the non-profit organisation Popular Front of India (PFI)- an Islamic fundamentalist organisation, securing astonishing confessions of its top functionaries involved in the mass conversion. Christened as Operation Conversion Mafia, the report claimed that the PFI which is already under NIA investigation, was responsible for brainwashing Hindu women and marrying them off to Muslim men. Hadiya’s father has claimed that the organisation was responsible for converting his daughter, while the BJP leaders are now demanding a ban on PFI.

In most parts of the world, marriage is perceived as a personal decision between two people, however, for some centuries, couples in India have not enjoyed the liberty to love and find their own partners. Interfaith marriages have generally been challenging in some sectors of society,  but it was never made out to be a political issue as it is done now.

In the 40s, the country saw one of the most celebrated interfaith weddings of Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter Indira Priyadarshini with Feroze Jehangir Ghandy (later re-spelt as Gandhi), who was a Parsi. Similarly, Vice President of India Mohd Hidayatullah married Pushpa Shah, of Jain faith. Actress Sharmila Tagore married cricketer Nawab Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, but they refused to answer any questions related to their religion or whether there was any conversion. These high profiles marriages were widely discussed but were not seen as ‘Love Jihad’ because the political leaders of the time did not use it as a hate campaign to divide society.

In the last few years, Love Jihad has emerged as an aggressive and emotive campaign by some Hindu groups, accusing and targeting Muslim youth of luring non-Muslim women and forcing them to convert. These Hindu groups are indulging in strategic, orchestrated propaganda highlighting the ‘abduction’ of Hindu women by Muslim goondas.

With religious polarisation increasing in the country, interfaith marriage is yet another bone of contention which may flare up disharmony even more. It is women who are again the ‘item’ of political tension without their consent or taking their voices into account. One wonders if Indian women will ever acquire the freedom to make personal choices and if it is right to dream of a utopian society where religion will be an absolute non-issue when two people decide to enter the sacred institution of marriage.

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