The government in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has approved a bill to prevent “forceful” religious conversions, a legislation critics say is aimed at curbing interfaith marriages.
“The bill includes a maximum punishment of up to 10 years in jail and up to 100,000 Indian rupees [$1,358] in fine, with the burden of proof virtually falling on the accused and those associated with the accused, including organisations and institutions,” state’s Home Minister Narottam Mishra told a news conference on Saturday, without elaborating.
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An official statement later said “those looking to change their religion will have to notify two months ahead, failing which the marriage will be considered null and void under the new law”, which will be presented in the state assembly next week.
The Madhya Pradesh government’s move came almost a month after a similar law was passed by India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. Both states are governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJP chief minister in Uttar Pradesh is a 48-year-old saffron-robed Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, a hardliner known for his inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims.
‘Love jihad’ laws
The legislation is being referred to as “love jihad” laws, a term used by the Hindu right wing to refer to an unproven conspiracy that Muslims are luring Hindu brides with the aim of converting them to Islam.
Falling foul of the vaguely-worded legislation is not hard. Dozens of Muslim men have been arrested – for which police need no warrant – in just a few weeks, despite interfaith marriages being a rare phenomenon in the Hindu-majority nation.
It's the unholy trinity of patriarchy, caste and dominant religion that has always wanted to control women's sexuality and freedom.
On Friday, a Muslim teenager was arrested under the new law in Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor district after the father of his 16-year-old classmate said the boy “induced the girl to elope with him” with the “intention to marry and convert her”.
While returning from a friend’s birthday party earlier this month, the boy and the girl were attacked by a group of men and taken to the local police station.
The Muslim boy was booked under the anti-conversion law and on charges of abduction. He was also charged under sections of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.
The laws passed in the two BJP-ruled states have sent a further chill through India’s 200 million-strong Muslim minority and defenders of the country’s secular traditions, who have raised alarm about the Hindu nationalist party’s policies since it came to power in 2014 and returned with a bigger majority last year.
Nowhere is the BJP’s alleged mission of “Hindutva” – Hindu hegemony – more in evidence than in Uttar Pradesh, a vast and economically backward state of 200 million people.
While there is no credible evidence of an organised mass attempt to convert Hindu women to Islam and bring about Muslim domination, the conspiracy theory is rife in Hindutva circles and Adityanath’s government has pledged to stamp out “love jihad” with the new law.
Any relative of the bride can complain to the police, the men can be arrested on the slightest suspicion, and women are pressured into making incriminating statements, activists say.
Muslim boys do sometimes pretend to be Hindus, and there have been instances of kidnapping women on both sides.
But many right-wing Hindus think the men are not acting alone but are part of a master plan, probably financed by India’s Muslim-majority neighbour Pakistan.
Believing “love jihad” is real “would be a laughable idea if it wasn’t so dangerous”, said rights activist Harsh Mander. “What we’re witnessing … is the complete demolition of everything that the constitution promised.”
Woman suffers miscarriage
A few weeks ago, when 22-year-old Muskan and her Muslim husband Rashid went to register their marriage in the Uttar Pradesh town of Moradabad, he ended up in jail and the young woman in a state-run shelter home.
Three months pregnant, she suffered a miscarriage.
“They knew I was pregnant. They still made me work, clean the room, putting strain on my belly,” said Muskan, who went by name Pinky when she was a Hindu. “I knew I was losing my child.”
The couple’s “crime” was the alleged violation of the anti-conversion law, which again carries a punishment of up to 10 years in jail.
What we're witnessing... is the complete demolition of everything that the constitution promised.
Muskan, meanwhile, is back with her in-laws, still suffering medical complications. She intends to stay with Rashid, who, along with his brother, has spent two weeks behind bars before police released them as Muskan resisted pressure to incriminate him.
“I trust and love Muskan. I knew she wouldn’t make a statement against our love,” he told the AFP news agency. “I only got to know about our baby when I got out.”
Muslims ‘brainwashing our girls’
Other states governed by the BJP want to enact legislation similar to that in Uttar Pradesh and the bill passed by the Madhya Pradesh cabinet.
Egging on the government and the police are hardline Hindu groups, the most prominent being the Bajrang Dal, which is thought to have more than five million youth members nationwide.
It has been repeatedly accused of deadly sectarian violence, and is also known for hassling couples on Valentine’s Day, and intimidating Muslims and so-called low-caste Hindus accused of slaughtering cows – which are sacred in Hinduism.
“Love jihad is a reality, it is a well-thought-out strategy deployed by Muslim boys to lure Hindu girls,” Ramji Tiwari, the Bajrang Dal chief in the city of Kanpur, told AFP.
Muslims, he claimed, are “hellbent” on one day outnumbering Hindus – they currently outnumber Muslims by almost six to one – in India by “trapping and brainwashing our girls”.
Bajrang Dal now conducts “awareness campaigns”, going door-to-door telling “our mothers and sisters that they should be wary of these smooth-talking men”.
The BJP’s new mission against “love jihad” is also a blow against the right of women to choose whom they marry and an attempt to ensure they remain in “traditional” roles, activists say.
“It’s the unholy trinity of patriarchy, caste and dominant religion that has always wanted to control women’s sexuality and freedom,” lawyer and rights activist Vrinda Grover told AFP.