During his tenth class exam, the one thing that had pushed Faisal to study hard was his father’s promise to buy him a cellphone that would “click pictures, play music and have WhatsApp”, if he did well. When the exam results came in, he and his father, Shauqat, headed straight to the local mobile shop and bought Faisal’s first smartphone – a cheap Chinese one since that was all Shauqat, a carpenter, could afford to buy.
Tall, curly haired, 15-year-old Faisal lived in Sarai Kale Khan, an early 19th-century settlement in South Delhi. Initially the abode of a Sufi saint, Kale Khan, it also served as a shelter space, a ‘sarai’, for travellers. In present-day New Delhi, Sarai Kale Khan is home to one of the city’s largest bus terminuses, functioning as a transit point, or the permanent destination for poor rural migrants. According to Save The Children, an organisation that has been working with poor women and children in the area for almost two decades, Sarai Kale Khan has a population of approximately 280,000 people. Of this population, 70 percent are Muslim migrants, mostly from north India, and another ten percent are non-Muslim migrants. The non-migrant landowners form the remaining 20 percent of the population. This includes a few Muslims but most are from the Hindu Gujjar community.
Faisal’s family had moved here 12 years ago from a village in Gonda, a district in Uttar Pradesh (UP). His father had found a steady job as a carpenter in a shop, while his mother worked as domestic help. They lived in one of the many buildings that offer rooms on rent in Sarai Kale Khan. Every landowner in the area owns on average five buildings, each with six to seven floors. Each floor has up to 20 rooms and one common toilet to be shared by all inhabitants on that floor. The rent for a room varies between INR 1700 (USD 25) to INR 3000 (USD 45) per month, excluding water and electricity costs. The rooms either have a small window or no ventilation at all. The claustrophobic environment worsens when meals are cooked here. Water supply is limited: twice a day for an hour each. Residents line up in long queues to store water. There are open electricity wires and usually every month someone gets electrocuted. Almost all the tenants work in the unorganised sector, as daily wage labourers, domestic workers, security guards, and artisans like Faisal’s father.
In his building, Faisal was more educated than the rest of the children. His schooling had empowered him and he had started pointing out how the landlord was fudging the electricity and water bills, charging INR 8.5 (USD 0.10) per unit instead of INR 4, which led to a minor rebellion in his building. A week before Diwali in 2015, his phone number was found in the call logs of Rina, the daughter of Avtaar Singh, Faisal’s Gujjar landlord.
Faisal was dragged out of his house and brutally beaten up by a group of Gujjar boys. His private parts were stuffed with a glass bulb. When his mother tried to save him, she was sexually humiliated. The beating procession ended when some local activists intervened. Faisal was accused of ‘Love Jihad’.
Marrying the ‘enemy’
Love Jihad is a theory propounded by rightwing Hindu fundamentalist groups who claim that Muslim men seek to wage jihad by making Hindu women fall in love with them and marry them, so as to covert them to Islam. In 2006, Babu Bajrangi, then a prime accused in the 2002 Gujarat riots’ Naroda Patiya massacre case, issued a pamphlet on behalf of his trust Navchetan. It stated, “If you rescue one girl, it is the same as saving 100 cows. One daughter equals 100 holy cows.” Bajrangi said the mission of this organisation was to ‘rescue’ all Patel girls who married outside their community. He confessed to using force to rescue young girls who married Muslims.
The term ‘Love Jihad’ itself was first popularised by Pramod Muthalik, founder of the Sri Ram Sene, in 2007 in Karnataka, when he began a similar ‘rescue’ operation to forcefully separate Hindu women who had married Muslim men. Later, the Karnataka police was asked by the court to investigate the possibility of Love Jihad. The hollowness of the Love Jihad argument was confirmed when the police filed a report in response saying that they couldn’t corroborate any such theory.
However, this has not deterred the rightwing ‘Hindutva’ organisations from claiming that young Muslim men are paid for every Hindu woman they convert to Islam. One such organisation, the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, has even come up with a Love Jihad ‘rate list’, a sum allegedly paid to Muslim men, based on the caste of the girl. The remuneration for Rajput girls is supposedly INR 1 lakh (USD 1500) and for Brahmin girls, it is INR 2 lakhs (USD 3000). Girls from lower castes are less lucrative catches, according to this logic.
This type of propaganda has repeatedly been used by religious fundamentalists in India to instigate sectarian unrest on a number of occasions. In September 2013, the large-scale communal violence which erupted in the Muzaffanagar district, UP, left 60 people dead, according to official reports, and more than 100 according to unofficial ones. Thousands were forcibly displaced, making fleeing women vulnerable to rape, molestation and mutilation. In the midst of the bloodletting and rapes, rallying calls like ‘Beti bachao, bahu lao’ (Save Hindu daughters, get Muslim wives) were used by Hindutva leaders, epitomising the fundamentalist, patriarchal logic that gives communities the ownership of women’s bodies through marriage.
After Hindu fundamentalists came up with ‘Love Jihad’, Muslim fundamentalists subsequently came up with a similar theory called ‘Dharma Yuddha’, where Hindu boys con Muslim women into marrying them. In a country where more than 50 percent of the population is under 25, these theories are, on the face of it, patriarchal, communal and driven by the politics of religion. However, there are deeper issues of class and labour that underpin their use among the young.
Young love, old norms
In August 2014, a young boy, Kaleem was accused of Love Jihad when a video of Shalu, a girl from Sarawa village in Meerut, UP, went viral. She alleged that she was raped by Kaleem and others in the village madrassa. She also claimed that she had been impregnated during the incident and had to undergo an abortion because of which she bore surgical marks on her body. Kaleem, along with the Muslim sarpanch of the village and six others were arrested. The girl later confessed that she was in love with Kaleem, who was her boyfriend, and that her parents had forced her to frame him when they came to know of this. It was also revealed that there was an ongoing dispute in the village about the gate of a mosque that had been replaced with a larger, more ornate one by the new Muslim sarpanch. The surgery marks on the girl’s body turned out to be from an operation to abort an ectopic pregnancy, to stave off the ‘shame’ of premarital sex.
The last available government data on abortions in India from 2008-2009, collected by the Health Management and Information System (under the National Rural Health Mission), suggests that a total of 11.06 million abortions take place in India. Moreover, statistics collected by Mumbai’s International Institute for Population Sciences, a public health organisation, show that about 17 percent men and four percent women in rural areas said they engaged in premarital sex, while in urban areas, the figures stand at ten percent men and two percent women. However, there is a marked refusal to recognise the increased incidence of premarital sexual experimentation among the young by political and religious outfits that fan communal tensions when an inter-faith relationship is discovered.
In 2013, during the implementation of the Justice Verma Committee’s recommendations on rape laws in India, following the rape of a paramedic student in December 2012, some political parties objected to lowering the age of consent for sex from 18 to 16 on the grounds that the recommendation came in conflict with the “conservative norms” of Indian society. Chief among them was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), now in power at the Centre and a self-proclaimed champion of the Hindutva ideology. Several Muslim organisations also opposed the proposal. Abdul Rahim Qureshi, assistant general secretary of All India Muslim Personal Law Board, was quoted saying, “It is an irony that government proposes to lower the age of consent to 16, when the marriageable age for girls is 18. Sex outside marriage is detrimental to society.” In such a scenario, where young girls and boys are experimenting with their sexuality despite societal conservatism, communal and fundamentalist politics are used to colour their premarital affairs when discovered by their families or the immediate community.
Battle for control
There is also the question of property rights for women in inter-faith and inter-caste marriages. During the General Election campaigns in 2014, Lalit Maheshwari, the head of the rightwing Hindu organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Muzaffarnagar unit, mentioned in an interview with this reporter, “We are against (the) right to ancestral property for women because we anyway give them dowry.” This patriarchal mindset towards women and property rights is evident, both in the Love Jihad theory and the rise in honour killings in India.
According to a study commissioned by the National Commission for Women, 72 percent of honour killings are related to inter-caste marriages. The correlation between the community’s ‘honour’ and the dilution of caste barriers through marriage is directly linked to land rights.
Till the early 1900s, Hindu Jats controlled at least 60 percent of the land in Haryana. Each time there is an inter-caste or inter-religious wedding, the Hindu Jat community’s exclusive right over the land is diluted. So much so, that in 1989, Chaudhary Devi Lal, the then deputy prime minister of India, and also former Haryana chief minister , who had the support of the Jats, proposed an amendment in the Hindu Succession Act to abrogate the rights of married women when it came to ancestral property. After widespread protests from women’s rights groups, Devi Lal backed down. The Act still stands and allows Hindu women to claim an equal share in their ancestral property. Meanwhile, the honour killings continue.
My own reporting in the region has led me to conclude that the increasing number of ‘love’ marriages, where young women choose their own partners, is proportional to the number of honour killings by caste councils in India. This is a clear indication of society’s discomfiture with the young, assertive women making their own choices that blur caste hierarchies, religious affiliations and redistribute sources of wealth. With complicated state laws like the Special Marriage Act – which require a number of documents to get married without conversion for an inter-faith couple – often the only option is to convert to get married.
Such conversions then stoke the fire behind propaganda drives and communally-tinged slogans that use terms like ‘Love Jihad’ to capitalise on the majority community’s fear of being ‘overtaken’ by the minority community. Several Sangh Parivar outfits have set up ‘fronts’ to stop marriages, which they categorise as Love Jihad. Prominent among them are the ‘Hindu Behen Beti Bachao Sangarsh Samiti’ (Save Hindu Sisters and Daughters Struggle Committee) set up by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Meerut Bachao Manch (Save Meerut Forum), formed by RSS-affiliated groups that include RSS’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. The intentions and the moralising philosophy behind these platforms, aimed at creating ‘awareness’ amongst girls and ‘protecting’ them, not only dismiss the individual agency and the intelligence of young women to make informed choices, but also aim at controlling, through the threat of violence, pivotal life decisions concerning their bodies and future.
In the shifting landscape of India, where it is mostly the marginalised who challenge the terms of their oppression or who migrate looking for a better life, theories like Love Jihad come in handy for the privileged few who would like to maintain the status quo and power conferred by caste, class and gender. Far too often, it is them, the powerful, the upper-caste, the rich and the men, who win.
No police case was registered following the attack on Faisal. His family decided to move back to their village. Shauqat is still recovering from almost losing his only son. He says that although he had made Delhi his home, as “a poor, Muslim migrant” there was no guarantee that he or his family members wouldn’t be killed in a similar attack. Faisal’s family don’t intend to ever come back to Delhi, the site of their trauma, again.
In a later interview, Rina told me, “I told my parents that I only used to talk to him on the phone sometimes. We were not planning to run away or anything. My father didn’t listen.” The tenants have gone back to paying INR 8.5 per unit to Avtaar Singh.
~ Neha Dixit is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. She writes on politics and social justice in Southasia.
(This is an essay from our December 2015 print quarterly ‘The Marriage Issue: Loves, laws, lusts’. See more from the issue here.)