“There is only love, no jihad”
Priya Verma was at her parents’ house on the day they arrested her husband. She had made the trip from Lucknow, the capital of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, to her small hometown two hours away, for a post-wedding Hindu ceremony called the Pag Phera, in which the new bride’s return is meant to bring prosperity to her household. She had no idea that her parents would forcibly keep her in their house while the police tracked down her husband. They had been married for just two days.
Mohammad Taufiq was arrested on 12th December 2020, charged with impersonation, cheating, marrying with fraudulent intention, outraging religious sentiments and breaking the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion ordinance. Officially this law, which was passed by the state on 24th November 2020, is meant to prevent religious conversion by “undue influence, coercion or allurement”, including marriage. But unofficially it is known as the ‘love jihad’ law, designed by the Uttar Pradesh government to tackle what it claims is an increasing threat – Muslim men deceiving women into marrying them so that they can convert them to Islam. The name ‘love jihad’ implies that these Muslim men are engaging in an act of terror.
According to the police report filed by Verma’s father, Taufiq had tricked his daughter into marriage by concealing the fact that he was Muslim and instead going by a Hindu-sounding alias, Rahul. He claimed that Taufiq began wooing her posing as Rahul, and that it was only when a photo of their wedding was shared on Facebook that he was recognised and his true identity was exposed. He was sent to prison, presumed guilty unless he could prove otherwise, and under the ‘love jihad’ law he could face a jail term of up to ten years.
Verma has a different version of events. The 29-year-old was teaching at a high school in her hometown, Kannauj, to fund her Master’s in sociology when she met Taufiq, 32, online. She knew from the beginning that he was a Muslim. They started off as friends, but she began falling for him the more she got to know him. After two years they decided to get married, but Verma knew her parents wouldn’t approve of her marrying a Muslim. So she did what many daughters in conservative families do – she lied. The couple introduced him to her parents as Rahul, the same name that was printed on their wedding invitations, and they got married in a Hindu ceremony. Verma never thought this lie would land Taufiq in jail.
Trapped in her parents’ house now, she’s not allowed to see anyone and her phone is her only connection to the outside world. She uses it to tell me that Taufiq never had any intention of making her convert to Islam. Speaking just above a whisper so that her family doesn’t overhear, she says: “I’m saying that I wanted to marry him, that I did it of my own free will. Why won’t anyone listen? If I don’t even have a voice in this world, what do I have left?” She tells me that her parents were acting upon the advice of neighbours and relatives, who convinced them that their daughter had been tricked, and that her father only filed the police case after being intimidated by a group of Hindu right-wing extremists including Jeetu Tiwari, the district vice-president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP is currently the ruling political party, both nationally and at a state level in Uttar Pradesh.
“Mohammad is not a terrorist; he did not marry me under false pretences,” says Verma. “With this new law, people threaten and frighten you by throwing the phrase ‘love jihad’ around. But that didn’t happen here. He is a good man.”
In the final months of 2020, the frenzy over ‘love jihad’ reached new levels. In addition to Uttar Pradesh passing its controversial law, two news stories relating to the conspiracy made headlines globally. In October, right-wing social media users called for a boycott of an Indian jewellery brand, Tanishq, which ran an advert showing a happy interfaith couple getting married. Facing accusations of promoting ‘love jihad’, the company pulled the commercial. A month later, BJP politicians objected to a depiction of a Hindu woman kissing a Muslim man in the BBC’s adaptation of Vikram’s Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy. Party members called for a police investigation and a boycott of Netflix, which has the broadcast rights in India.
Before politicians and right-wing tabloids gave it traction, ‘love jihad’ was a fringe conspiracy theory amongst Hindu nationalists. It hinges on the notion that Muslims, India’s largest religious minority and one fifth of its population, are carrying out an organised campaign to increase their numbers by seducing, deceiving, kidnapping and marrying Hindu women to convert them to Islam. Some proponents suggest that Islamic groups in India are receiving foreign funding from Isis and other fundamentalist organisations in order to help young Muslim men entice women with gifts or promises of a better life.
The concept of ‘love jihad’ dates back to 2007 when one right-wing group, the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, launched a propaganda campaign claiming – with no evidence – that 30,000 women had been converted to Islam in the state of Karnataka. In 2017 the case of Hadiya, a woman who converted to Islam and married a Muslim against her family’s wishes, became a national story – her marriage was annulled by a court in Kerala on the grounds that she had been indoctrinated by her husband, but the country’s supreme court restored it ten months later. By now, the concept of ‘love jihad’ had reached the political mainstream, a shift which occurred alongside the emergence of the Hindu right wing as a dominant force. With the rise of the BJP and Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014, India’s secular constitution has been repeatedly challenged by policies that further marginalise Muslims in India.
Over the past two years alone, the government has revoked the special status of Kashmir (India’s only Muslim-majority state), laid the foundation stone for a Hindu temple at the site of the Babri mosque, which was desecrated by Hindu nationalists in 1992, and passed a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims. In BJP-ruled states, Muslims and Dalits (people belonging to the lowest caste) have been lynched and Amnesty International has warned against “the pattern of hate crimes committed against Muslims with seeming impunity”. In September 2020 Amnesty had to shut down its offices in India because the government had frozen its bank accounts. Countrywide protests against the BJP’s discriminatory policies have been met with violent repression and students, activists, journalists and opposition party members have been arrested and charged with sedition.
Against this backdrop, the state of Uttar Pradesh – which has a population of 200 million, fills 80 of the 543 seats in parliament and is home to one third of all BJP members – has become a microcosm of the heightening tensions in contemporary Indian politics.
When pressed by the opposition, India’s central government admitted that no cases of ‘love jihad’ have been confirmed by any of its agencies, and an enquiry conducted by a counterterrorism task force, the National Investigative Agency, found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy to entrap and convert Hindu women to Islam. Despite the central government’s findings, at a rally for a by-election in the city of Deoria on 31st October 2020, Uttar Pradesh’s divisive chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, announced to cheering crowds that his government would enact a strict law specifically to stop ‘love jihad’. Dressed in his signature saffron-coloured robes, the hardline Hindu monk-turned-BJP-politician said that “Those who conceal their identities and play with the honour of our sisters and daughters, I am warning them. If they don’t mend their ways then their journey of Ram Naam Satya will begin.” Invoking the Hindu god Ram and a chant associated with funeral processions, Adityanath seemed to imply that those who dishonoured Hindu women deserved to die.
“BJP politicians objected to a Hindu woman kissing a Muslim man in ‘A Suitable Boy’”
The law, passed less than a month later on an emergency basis and without approval from the state legislative assembly, restricts religious conversion. If anyone in Uttar Pradesh wants to change their religion, they now have to go through a complicated process that involves submitting a declaration of intent to convert to the district magistrate two months beforehand. An application with their personal details is then posted on a public board to notify potentially objecting family members, and in the meantime a police investigation is conducted to ascertain the motives behind the conversion.
If at any point the applicant doesn’t comply with the rules, their conversion is deemed illegal and they are liable to a fine of up to 25,000 rupees (£250) and a jail term of up to ten years. The law also specifies that religious conversion solely for the purpose of marriage is illegal and that any marriages conducted on this basis will be considered void. The police can act without warrants or permission from the courts if they suspect someone of an offence under the new law, and those arrested are not eligible for bail.
In the months since the Uttar Pradesh law came in, the central state of Madhya Pradesh has passed a similar law and other BJP-ruled states including Haryana, Gujarat, Karnataka and Assam are considering passing their own versions. Yogi Adityanath has successfully marketed himself as a firebrand leader, and the India Today Mood of the Nation survey in January 2021 had him as favourite to succeed Modi as prime minister. Many see him as the future of a party that is embracing the more fringe voices of the right and a violent Hindu supremacist ideology.
For interfaith couples in India, having a Hindu or Muslim wedding is a much more straightforward process than registering their marriage under the secular Special Marriages Act (SMA) of 1954. Unlike a marriage under religious law, which can take as little as two hours to register and involves minimal verification processes, a secular marriage registration can take up to four months of jumping through bureaucratic hoops with no guarantee of success at the end. Neither Verma nor Taufiq converted in order to marry – instead they pretended that Taufiq was a Hindu – but many couples have found it easier for one partner to convert to the other’s religion than to go through the complicated procedures laid out by the SMA.
The ‘love jihad’ law, which criminalises such behaviour, poses a huge obstacle to couples going against their families’ wishes by marrying outside their religion. “This law is against free choice, it attacks the autonomy of women, infringes on privacy and non-discrimination and it is anathema to a democratic society,” says Teesta Setalvad. Setalvad, a battle-hardened journalist-turned-activist, is secretary of rights organisation Citizens for Justice and Peace, which has petitioned the supreme court of India asking for a stay on Uttar Pradesh’s new law. The court has so far refused to act.
“If Muslims convert one Hindu girl, Hindus will convert 100 Muslim girls”
In the meantime, 54 people in Uttar Pradesh, including Mohammad Taufiq, have been arrested under the new regulations. In the city of Moradabad, an interfaith couple was attacked by a Hindu right-wing vigilante group as they were getting their marriage registered. The mob took them to the police station where the woman’s husband was arrested despite her protests, while she was forcibly taken to a women’s shelter where she later had a miscarriage. In Bijnor, neighbours spotted 18-year-old Saquib walking with a 16-year-old schoolmate after going for a pizza together. They reported him to the police and he was charged with abduction, sexual assault of a minor and the intention to convert her to Islam. In Kushinagar, Haider Ali spent his wedding night allegedly being beaten by the police after a tip-off that he was marrying a Hindu woman. They released him the next day after confirming that his bride had always been Muslim.
Hindu supremacist organisations including the Bajrang Dal, Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a group founded by Yogi Adityanath, have publicly declared their intention to stop any Hindu-Muslim couple from registering their marriage in Uttar Pradesh. All these groups are affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary organisation linked to the BJP that aims to redefine India as a Hindu nation rather than a secular one. “These vigilante groups have been deliberately nurtured by the BJP,” says Setalvad. “They have different names and identities but they all carry out the dirty work for the party [including surveilling, intimidating and assaulting people], which is completely unlawful and unconstitutional.”
The groups reportedly have a network of volunteers in towns and villages across Uttar Pradesh who keep an eye on people at parks, restaurants, cinemas, and outside schools and colleges. They also have moles in magistrates’ offices who tip them off about interfaith marriage applications. These groups feel emboldened by the new law in Uttar Pradesh, encouraged that the state’s government believes in the need to ‘save’ Hindu women. The state’s chief minister has been explicit about his own beliefs – in an undated video that went viral in 2014, Adityanath announced at a rally that “If Muslims convert one Hindu girl, Hindus will convert 100 Muslim girls. If they kill one Hindu, we will kill 100 Muslims.”
Out of the 16 complaints of ‘love jihad’ currently registered in the state, all but two were filed by family members rather than the women themselves. The arrests include entire families of Muslims, charged with aiding and abetting the accused – in the district of Etah, 26 family members of a Muslim man were imprisoned, and in Mau, police reports were filed against 16 relatives of the accused. Critics have compared the new regulations to Hitler’s Nuremberg laws forbidding marriages between Jews and persons of “German or related blood”. The Adityanath government, however, is adamant that it is not an anti-Muslim policy. “We are only addressing the problem of fraud. The law is not against any particular religion or caste,” Mrityunjay Kumar, the chief minister’s media adviser, tells me. “This law is for people who lie, conceal their identity and religion and trick people into marriage. If everything is in order and done legally, then there is no problem.”
Akanksha Sharma and her husband, Mohammad Suaib, disagree. Over cups of chai at their home in Noida, a city on the western border of Uttar Pradesh, they lay out exactly how the legal process is stacked against interfaith couples.
When they wanted to get married in 2014, they didn’t know that a secular marriage act existed. It was only when they contacted a Delhi-based NGO, Dhanak, that they discovered there was a way for them to get married without one of them having to change
Couples seeking secular marriages are required to have their applications posted on a public noticeboard for 30 days, in case family members are unaware of their plans and wish to register their objection with the courts. These notices include applicants’ names, addresses, age, occupation and – although not specified by the law – many magistrates ask for photos as well. Loopholes in the SMA make it easy for officials to impose their own ideas of morality on interfaith couples. When they approached the registrar’s office, Sharma and Suaib were also told they had to get notice of their plans to marry published in three leading newspapers and bring the clippings as proof before they could even begin the process.
Sharma has been married to Suaib for six years. In their home, they celebrate both Eid and Diwali; her husband fasts during Ramadan and she offers up Hindu prayers each day. “An interfaith marriage, where two people are still practising their own religions, respecting each other and coexisting happily – it completely shatters the agenda of the government,” says Sharma.
I ask her why ‘love jihad’ has become such a pervasive fear in Uttar Pradesh and she describes her childhood and the unspoken social structures in which she grew up. She never had any Muslim friends and was encouraged only to play with children from the same Hindu caste as her family. It was only after moving to the city for work that she met Suaib. “There is so much hate in our hearts nowadays that we don’t even believe true love can exist, that two people can love each other without any ulterior motive,” says Sharma. “What they don’t understand is that love and jihad cannot coexist because jihad is something that you do intentionally. Love is never intentional, it just happens.”
Suaib and Sharma now volunteer at Dhanak, just over the state border in Delhi, where they help other interfaith couples who approach the NGO. They stand as witnesses for weddings and provide support through the legal process. Sharma lists the ways people in interfaith couples are intimidated by the state, from registrars’ refusals to accept applications to instances when they ask to meet with the woman alone and advise her not to go through with the marriage. “They treat you like a criminal,” says Suaib. In many cases, Dhanak volunteers have to present a printed copy of the law at magistrates’ offices to refute demands that officials make, such as requirements for witnesses from the applicants’ home towns or posting a notice to each of their parents. “Nobody is willing to help you,” he says. “Even though you are doing something that is within your constitutional rights, you will be pushed back at every step.”
Like ‘wanted’ posters, interfaith couples’ applications featuring their photos are readily visible on noticeboards at magistrates’ offices, functioning as a way to publicly shame them or, worse, to allow anyone to contact them and their families. These are the details used by Hindu nationalist groups to ‘dox’ couples, sharing their personal information on social media. Last year, 120 Hindu-Muslim couples were named and had their phone numbers and addresses made public in a Facebook post urging “All Hindu lions to find and hunt down all the men mentioned here.”
When couples realise how difficult and intimidating the process is, they often decide to take the route of religious marriage instead. “The law forces them to take that route because they want to be together, no matter what – and then they get accused of ‘love jihad’,” says Suaib. He believes that instead of the Uttar Pradesh government making the SMA process easier, which would prevent the religious conversions that it is concerned about, it has come up with new ways to punish people. “They want to stop interfaith marriages,” says Sharma. “With these new laws, they have targeted SMA as well [by instilling fear in interfaith couples]. They are indirectly telling you that you cannot marry someone from another faith.”
Even if you want to register your marriage legally, people in Uttar Pradesh are so scared for their own safety that they refuse to be witnesses in case they are also thrown in jail, says Sharma, and the language of the law is so vague that even a taxi driver who takes a couple to and from a ceremony may be considered an accomplice. “The crime is based on suspicion and the onus to prove yourself innocent is on you,” says Sharma. “With this new law, a couple’s married life begins with one of them in jail and the other in a women’s shelter or trapped in her parents’ house. And that trauma, of separation and struggle, will stay with them for a very long time.”
Across the Yamuna river, 25 kilometres west of Sharma and Suaib’s home, lies India’s capital city, Delhi. Its proximity to Uttar Pradesh has made it a haven for young couples escaping the state, the police and their families, in order to stay together. And it’s where Priyanka and Salman fled on 12th December 2020. The ‘love jihad’ law had heightened the tension in their small town in central Uttar Pradesh. Priyanka, 21, decided that she couldn’t risk her Muslim boyfriend Salman, 25, being imprisoned on false charges since her family was against their relationship.
During the pandemic and lockdown, her family had found out about Salman and tried to make her break up with him. She refused, and they locked her in a bedroom and took away her mobile phone. Priyanka’s younger brother helped her call Salman and they began planning their escape. Fearing that Hindu vigilantes might have been tipped off about them, they left for the capital. But they were so worried about what their state government would do that they petitioned the Delhi high court, requesting protection from their families and the Uttar Pradesh police, and asked to not be taken out of the court’s jurisdiction if a case was filed against them in the state.
“This pseudo-crisis is created by politicians who portray themselves as the saviour of Hindus”
The pair are now staying in a safe house provided by the Delhi government while they go through the complicated process of registering their marriage under the SMA. But despite the bureaucratic hurdles they have to overcome, Salman and Priyanka are happier than they have been in a long time. “I feel great,” says Salman. “Before, we had to hide and meet in secret but now we can be together.” Even though they had no plans of religious conversion, they tell me that the threat of what the state might have done to them was enough to make them flee. “With this law, the Uttar Pradesh government has constructed a barricade between people from different religions. They don’t understand that for two people who want to be together, there is only love, no jihad.”
Mihir Srivastava, the author of the book Love Jihadis: An Open-Minded Journey into the Heart of Western Uttar Pradesh is also emphatic that ‘love jihad’ does not exist on the ground, and that it is simply being used as a way to unite an electoral base that is otherwise fragmented along economic and caste lines. “This is a pseudo-crisis created by politicians so that they can portray themselves as the saviour of Hindus and garner more votes,” says Srivastava. “How do you galvanise a majority from such a diverse population? An economic imperative [the promise of economic development] would be great, but in this case identity politics is
It has been two months since Taufiq’s arrest. When I ask Verma how she’s been doing, she simply replies, “He’s still in jail.” She doesn’t have faith in the Indian legal system, and for good reason – proceedings are regularly adjourned and there is an immense backlog of cases. Taufiq’s case has been delayed until March.
In the meantime, Verma alleges that she’s been receiving threats and verbal abuse from right-wing Hindu vigilantes in her town. “They told me if he gets released from prison, just see what we do to him,” she says, explaining that she’s now scared for her family and her in-laws’ safety. She visited Taufiq in January, but says that seeing him in prison was too much for her to bear. Her anger is mostly directed at the men in her town who continue to claim that this is a case of ‘love jihad’ despite her saying otherwise. “I hope their sisters or daughters never have to go through what they are putting me through,” she says angrily. “My heart is weeping, every day.”
To Teesta Setalvad, the ‘love jihad’ law is proof that 21st-century India is “not an open, secure democracy, but [a country] rife with hate, fear and discontent – not caused by war or famine, but because of insidious propaganda over the decades”. However, she’s not entirely pessimistic, pointing to the activism and bravery of young Indians as a reason to believe that things will get better. “What is amazing is that our young people are still making brave choices [in whom they choose to love],” she says. “The question is whether India will stand by them.”
Some names have been changed in this story in order to protect interviewees.
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