India’s Most Populous State Brings Law to Fight ‘Love Jihad’
Mannequins displaying wedding dresses stand outside a clothing store in Mumbai, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

India’s Most Populous State Brings Law to Fight ‘Love Jihad’

India’s most populous state has vowed to fight what it calls “love jihad” and has declared interfaith marriages illegal if the purpose is the religious conversion of the woman, in the latest move that risks further dividing the South Asian nation along religious lines.

States led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party call interfaith marriages “love jihad” -- a reference to an alleged conspiracy of Muslim men luring Hindu women into marriage for conversion. Ministers in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s firebrand priest Yogi Adityanath on Tuesday approved the law that also proposes jail sentences as long as 10 years for offenders.

The heated election campaign rhetoric that’s turned into legislation has triggered a debate on whether such a law will curb religious and civil liberties guaranteed by the constitution of the world’s largest democracy. At least five BJP-ruled states have announced their intention to pass similar laws but until now, only Himachal Pradesh has enacted its Religious Freedom Act, which came into force last year.

India’s Most Populous State Brings Law to Fight ‘Love Jihad’

Since his re-election in 2019, Modi revoked Article 370 of the constitution that granted special autonomous status to India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and approved a citizenship law that discriminates based on religion. He has also pushed for a national citizens registry in the northeastern state of Assam and laid the foundation stone for the construction of a Hindu temple at a site where a 16th century mosque was razed.

So pervasive is the animosity against interfaith relationships that Netflix series “A Suitable Boy,” based on a novel by writer Vikram Seth and directed by filmmaker Mira Nair, has stirred controversy for a scene showing its Hindu female protagonist kissing a Muslim man.

Two Netflix officials are facing a police complaint in the BJP-ruled state of Madhya Pradesh in connection with that scene shot with a temple in the background. The complaint has been filed by a member of right-wing group, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, who have demanded an apology for the scene which they said promoted so-called “Love Jihad,” news reports said.

The new law in Uttar Pradesh requires a person seeking religious conversion ahead of marriage to send an application to the district magistrate, the top administrator in a district, two months in advance, a minister with the provincial government told the media on Tuesday according to the Indian Express newspaper.

The law “seems to violate constitutional values of equality, non-discrimination, dignity, and very basic ethos that courts have always recognized, that adults can make their own free choice,” said Menaka Guruswamy, a senior lawyer. “All men and women should question this idea of their adulthood being questioned and their free will being second guessed by the state.”

The legislation does not ban interfaith marriages except those for the sole purpose of conversion, but it will go a long way in discouraging mixed marriages as the couples may be harassed by the police and the authorities.

An existing federal law, the Special Marriages Act, allows interfaith marriages without either party converting but it requires a publicly posted declaration one month in advance to enable anyone having objections to come forward.

Such declarations aren’t required when marriages are within the same religion. In September India’s Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging the one month notice after a petition cited violation of privacy of couples and instances of harassment.

“The effect of the law is to tighten the grip of religion over individual liberty and choice,” said Vrinda Grover, senior lawyer and human rights activist. “It is yet another means to control women’s sexuality, agency and right to choice. It also infantilizes women and portrays them as gullible fools, incapable of making decisions about their life.”

A special investigation into over a dozen allegations of the so-called phenomenon by the state’s own police force found no evidence of any alleged conspiracy or foreign funding for luring Hindu women into marriage in order to convert them, news reports said.

Mixed marriages, seen as essential to and an indicator of social harmony, are already rare in India. In the country’s capital city only 589 marriages were interfaith, out of 19,250 registered during the first nine months last year, according to official data reported by a news network News18. Another study on 15 year data till 2005 showed that only 2.2% of all women between the age of 15-49 had married outside their religion, according to Indian Express newspaper.

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