What is behind India’s ‘love jihad’ legislation?

This proposed legislation could not only marginalise further Muslims but also undermine women’s agency and rights.

A Muslim reads the Quran in Juma Masjid on the first day of Ramadan in Ahmedabad, India on April 25, 2020 [File: Reuters/Amit Dave]

India is a triumph of the imagination: innumerable cultures, languages, and worldviews, often at odds with one other, loosely bound by a constitution that frames equal rights and common values for an impossibly diverse population.

One of these values is secularism, which has been upheld as a central constitutional principle despite the chequered relationship between Hindus and Muslims – the two largest religious communities in India – historically tested by friction and violence.

More recently, however, this principle has been challenged by an unprecedented rise of Islamophobia.

The rise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is rooted in a sociopolitical ideology that asserts that India is a Hindu country, has led to the marginalisation of Muslims through activism on the ground, propaganda online, and policymaking at the highest levels. The latest in a line of disenfranchising policy decisions is legislation criminalising so-called “love jihad”. This month, India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, ruled by the BJP, has passed an ordinance to this effect and four other states are likely to follow suit.

“Love jihad” is a term used by the political and religious right to describe an alleged phenomenon where Muslim men lure Hindu women, by hook or by crook, into marrying them and converting to Islam. Right-wing propagandists claim that this is an organised racket rooted in a widespread conspiracy.

However, successive probes have failed to find any evidence that such a conspiracy exists and the central government has admitted that the term has no credible definition. Moreover, not only are any actual offences that may be committed in this regard, such as forced conversion or marriage that is entered into under false pretences or coercion, already punishable under existing legislation but also the wide framing of the proposed legislation goes against  India’s constitution and sound judicial precedent.

What then is the intent behind pushing for such legislation? One way to answer this question is to examine its premise and potential consequences.

Ideas of purity of blood are intrinsically linked to ideologies that seek to establish the supremacy of one imagined community over another. In the 1930s, aspersions over the citizenship of Jews and intermarriage between “Aryan” people and Jews were the foundation of the Nuremberg laws.

The proposed laws against “love jihad” should be, similarly, placed within the context of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a piece of controversial legislation passed last year that enables the state to question the citizenship of Indian Muslims. While this legislation sought to other Muslims as “outsiders” to the country, the narrative of “love jihad” seeks to other them within Indian society.

The central premise of the proposed new legislation vilifies Muslim men in particular, and, by association, Muslims in general, as untrustworthy and malicious – entrenching suspicion in the psychology of the nation. It reduces them to their religious identity by implying that they are committed, foremost, to “religious warfare”, even when it comes to something as intimate as love. It also reduces them to second-class citizens who cannot take for granted the right to life and liberty guaranteed by the constitution.

Rule of law and access to justice in India are both cripplingly weak for its disenfranchised classes and communities. Muslims, who are also more likely to be poor, constitute a disproportionately high fraction of under-trials in India’s prisons.

Last year, the government passed a law criminalising instant divorce among Muslims. While withdrawing legal sanction of the regressive practice was a laudable step, serious concerns were voiced about the decision to criminalise it. The anxiety was the same as it is with the impending legislation on “love jihad” – that the law can be misused to incarcerate members of the community under false pretexts.

The Frankenstein monster of “love jihad” has already taken on a life of its own. Fake rumours and videos have been circulated on social media alleging that women are being targeted by Muslim men, leading to riots and lynching. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, while announcing that he intends to enact a law against “love jihad”, also declared that Muslim men guilty of the crime ought to be killed.

Casting the Muslim man as the potential enemy furthers not only an ideological agenda but also a political one. The creation of a common enemy helps to consolidate a Hindu vote bank, bringing together voters on a highly emotive issue and encouraging them to vote along religious identity lines rather than other concerns, giving the BJP an edge over other parties during state and national elections.

The added consequence of this legislation, designed to push a political and ideological agenda, will be the further entrenchment of patriarchal norms. In large parts of India, women still struggle for basic freedoms with little say in matters concerning their education, work, finances, and marriage.

If a woman dares to defy her family and community in order to assert her right to choose her own partner, she could be faced with threats, violence and, at times, even death. Commonly, families of women who elope press charges against the couple in order to deploy state machinery to break them up or make an example of them. “Love jihad” laws are bound to be weaponised in this context, but there is also something even more insidious about them.

The idea of “love jihad” is rooted in the mindset that women are chattel and a family’s honour hinges on safeguarding them against marauders. In the aforementioned speech, Adityanath used the words “the honour of our daughters and sisters” referring to what he believes is at stake.

The insistence that there is a conspiracy also insinuates that women are gullible and therefore lack the agency to make sound decisions with respect to their own lives. In the recent past, “love jihad” has been used as an excuse to restrict women from using mobile phones and to encourage vigilantes who take to moral policing and harassment of couples. The idea also further endangers women’s right to privacy by creating a mechanism to question and probe their consent to marry and convert.

Every society struggles with dark instincts. By writing a lie into law, the BJP is appealing to these very instincts that can tear through the fragile constitutional bond that has held India together as a democracy, despite the odds, and further put in danger the lives of India’s Muslims and women.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.