Countering ‘love jihad’ by celebrating India’s interfaith couples

Last week, India’s Supreme Court refused to hear petitions challenging the constitutional validity of religious conversion laws passed by right-wing governments in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand states, saying the high courts in these states should decide on the matter.

The petitioners said innocent people, mainly Muslims, were being unfairly penalised under the so-called “love jihad” laws, and that at least two other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-governed states, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, were also planning similar laws.

“Love jihad” refers to a conspiracy theory propagated for more than 10 years by India’s right-wing groups that accuse Muslim men of luring Hindu women for marriage to forcefully convert them to Islam.

A day after the Supreme Court order on “love jihad” laws came, a campaign called the India Love Project (ILP) marked the 100th day of its formation on February 4.

Started by a group of three former journalists in October last year, ILP aims to celebrate stories of interfaith love or marriages – considered taboo in a country divided along caste, religious and ethnic lines – on social media.

The campaign, with steadily growing followers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, says it advocates “love and marriage outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity and gender”.

Cofounded by a journalist couple, Priya Ramani and Samar Halarnkar and their friend Niloufer Venkatraman, the project invites people to submit stories about themselves or their families that help others understand that love transcends religious and communal identities.

“This is not fiction. These stories and couples have already happened, they exist. People have made choices and some have braved odds to be with the person they love,” Venkatraman told Al Jazeera.

Venkatraman’s was the first story to feature in ILP, where she talked about her Parsi mother and Tamil Hindu father.

Ramani says the idea of creating ILP came when right-wing politicians started taking aim at interfaith marriages as the “love jihad” controversy grew bigger towards the end of last year.

“We began discussing it actively last year,” she says, adding that the trigger was the bullying popular jewellery brand Tanishq faced when it was forced to withdraw its TV advertisement featuring an interfaith couple, where the boy was a Muslim.

In that same month, October 2020, that Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-clad Hindu monk who is the BJP’s chief minister in Uttar Pradesh state, said those who practice “love jihad” will not be spared.

His government promulgated an ordinance making religious conversion a non-bailable offence, with penalties up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of using marriage to force someone to change their religion.

All this despite the central government telling parliament last year that no cases of “love jihad” were reported by any of the investigating agencies.

“In my view, the concept of ‘love jihad’ is an attack on Hindu girls. They can’t make a choice because we have this politics,” says Tanvir Aeijaz, a professor of political science at Delhi University.

“I am surprised why liberal feminists don’t pick up on this issue.”

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