How a Fictional Love Affair is Exposing India’s Majoritarian Drift
Maria Tavernini 4 December 2020

An innocent kiss between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy on the backdrop of a Hindu temple sparked controversy in India. The scene was in a BBC’s production, directed by Mira Nair based on the 1,400 page novel by writer Vikram Seth, “A Suitable Boy”, written in 1993, that has recently landed on Netflix in India. The series is set in the 50s, in post-Partition times, after the bloody sectarian clashes that marked the birth of India and Pakistan, carved out along confessional lines of what was called British India. The series, which revolves around the story of a Hindu family trying to arrange the marriage of their daughter, was initially hailed as inclusive for being the first BBC drama starring only non-white actors, before meeting backlash in India.

As soon as the six-episode drama dropped on Netflix India, exponents of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), an expression of the Hindu far-right (in power since 2014), have been vocal against the depiction of interfaith romance inside a temple on grounds that it is disrespectful of “religious sentiments”. Members of the party sought action against the online streaming giant after a complaint was submitted by Gaurav Tiwari, National President of BJP’s Yuva Morcha, the party’s youth wing. Tiwari accused Netflix of promoting “Love Jihad” followed by other complaints by other party members claiming that the producers “deliberately insulted Hindu gods and goddesses”.

Two senior officials at Netflix India were arrested by police for “objectionable scenes” in the series: the Hindu far-right is increasingly taking control of online content by censoring what is deemed “immoral” or “against Indian culture”. On November 11th, the Union government introduced new rules that will bring online news portals and Over The Top (OTT) content–providers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar under the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry’s regulatory power. A far-reaching move that could trigger stricter censorships on online and aired contents. This time, the issue was the spread of “Love Jihad”, tomorrow it could be something else, as well as sending a message to producers.

The theory of “Love Jihad” is not a new issue in India. It is based on the belief that Muslim boys intentionally seduce Hindu girls and lure them into marriage with the aim of forcefully converting them to Islam and subverting the demographic balance of the country. India’s population is 80 per cent Hindu, while Muslims are the largest minority, with some 200 million people, or 14 percent of its inhabitants. The Islamophobic urban legend first appeared in India shortly before the Hindu nationalist party came to power with its idea of a New India, a nation that should be essentially Hindu. In the past six years, the BJP has worked hard to place the country’s minorities – especially Muslims – at the margins, targeting the community with anti-Muslim and openly majoritarian policies.

India’s hierarchically ordered and structurally unequal society is based on endogamic unions: interfaith as well as inter-caste marriages are regarded with suspicion in the subcontinent: marrying out of the community is socially stigmatized to the extent that many mixed couples are forced to flee, are abused or disowned by their families, if not downright killed. The so-called “arranged marriage” – as opposed to “love marriage”, which carries a negative connotation – is widespread in India, especially among the middle-upper class, as it is the institution that guarantees the community’s endogamy in relation to caste, religion and social class and therefore the continuation of the family’s honor and respectability. There are, of course, many exceptions of interfaith marriages but the intolerance towards mixed unions is growing stronger under the current, divisive and polarizing, leadership.

India has a long history of policing love and criminalizing unions based on religion, caste, class and gender, while the urban myth of “Love Jihad” first spread in the south back in 2009, when religious groups of Hindus and Christians started targeting Muslim boys flirting with Hindu girls. In summer 2013, a controversy over an interfaith affair triggered a sectarian scuffle between Hindus and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh. The tension degenerated into a full-fledged riot that caused at least 62 deaths and 50,000 displaced people. Episodes of intolerance towards interfaith love have become increasingly frequent and worrisome.

Last October, Tanishq, a jewelry chain owned by the Tata group, one of the largest industrial groups in the country, was forced to withdraw the advertising of its new line called Ekatvam (“unity”) which portrayed a mixed Hindu-Muslim couple having a baby-shower. The decision came after some of the chain’s outlets in the state of Gujarat – where PM Narendra Modi is from – received threats from Hindu fundamentalists goons that asked also to boycott the brand, accused of promoting “Love Jihad”, a Hindu right-wing obsession. The jewelry campaign was born with the intention of celebrating Anekta Mein Ekta “unity in diversity”, but ended by blowing up communal tensions.

“The hateful love ‘jihad’ conspiracy in India is going mainstream”, was the title of journalist Rana Ayyub’s latest piece for the Washington Post. The story of Muslims forcing Hindu girls into conversion has recently made a comeback since the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath – the openly Islamophobic Hindu monk-turned-politician on BJP’s ticket – introduced an order that criminalizes conversion by interfaith unions with jail terms up to ten years if the marriage is considered “not genuine”. It is not clear yet how the “genuineness” is to be assessed. The states of Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Assam – all led by the BJP – have also announced bills criminalizing conversion by marriage.

Elevating the conspiracy of “Love Jihad” to a punishable offense is yet another step towards the progressive marginalization of the Muslim community. The majoritarian and authoritative drift has followed a crescendo in recent years that leaves little doubt on the BJP’s long-term social project.


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