Raising the bogey of 'love jihad'

'Love Jihad', on the face of it, sounds like an oxymoron. The terms love and war in a single phrase. But this phrase, weaponised by right-wing politicians and right-wing mass media platforms, denotes what most Indian parents fear. Their daughter falling prey to the worldly charms of a knave trained to trap innocents. This man will, through his charm and persuasion, impact their poor, innocent daughter so much, that she will lose all sense of discretion, rational thought and decision-making, and do the unthinkable. She will leave her religion, cut off ties from her parents and family, become a Muslim, and spend the rest of her life trapped in a marriage that she was tricked into. This is a bogey that many (if not most) girls have been brought up hearing. “They’re better-looking, better talkers, better listeners – but they are out to trap you into ‘their’ way of life. You must be wary.’’ And now, with political leaders telling their constituents that there is a very clear and imminent danger to the immortal souls of their daughters, the paranoia about ‘love jihad’ is at an all-time high.

The bogey of ‘love jihad’ is not new. Every generation of girls has been raised being told this by her parents and family. But it formally entered national discourse around 2008-9, when the Kerala High Court asked the local police force to investigate if there was an organised campaign of ‘honey-trapping’ young women to converting to Islam in the pretext of falling in love.

In 2012, the then Kerala Chief Minister told the Kerala Assembly that in the year period between 2009 and 2012 , “as many as 2,667 young women, of which 2,195 were Hindus and 492 were Christians had been converted to Islam.” This was enough for many to believe that there was an organised campaign to convert women from other religions into Islam. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC), amongst others, raised its voice against this trend of conversions. The Syro-Malabar Church – the largest Church in Kerala - joined in the chorus of voices, believing that they believed that radicalised Islam was weaponising love, and targeting their women. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti believed that over 30,000 of their women had been targeted in Karnataka.

At the core are three very different emotions that drive the discourse on ‘love jihad’. The first is the instinctive suspicion towards Muslim men. Part of this has to do with historical events that took place centuries ago. The second is the belief that women are feeble intellectually and mentally, are incapable of discerning true from fake and need protection from the wiles of handsome, charming, conmen. The third is that women belong to the faith, clan, family and represent its honour, so any decision by the woman to break strongly held social beliefs need to be questioned for the sake of the greater needs of society.

So, if so many people believe there is a conspiracy to seduce, convert and chain ‘their’ women – is there evidence to show that there is a systemic effort to proselytise through seduction? The Kerala police, one of the first to investigate this phenomenon believed that there was no conspiracy. After two years of investigation, Kerala cops concluded that there was no conclusive evidence that there was an organised attempt to woo and convert girls to Islam and then marry them. The Karnataka police reached a similar conclusion – they could find no evidence of ‘love jihad’. Furthermore, the National Investigation Agency came to the same conclusion. That ought to bury the bogey of ‘love jihad’, no?

Unfortunately, our politicians believe that the fact that there is no evidence of ‘love jihad’ tells you how wily and sophisticated the entire operation is. The perpetrators are so clever that they are able to pull wool over the eyes of experienced investigators. And of course, it helps that this is election season. Since all other avenues of winning elections – a prosperous economy, working systems, efficient government, delivery of services – seem closed, the only option seems to be to polarise the electorate. And what better way to cause negativity and hatred than to dust off an old conspiracy theory born out of insecurity, garnish it with oodles of national security and the fight against terror and serve it up to voters in tandem with a compliant media?

‘Love jihad’ is back in the news because BJP states are planning to bring in ordinances to prevent it. In the era of coronavirus and the economic devastation it has wreaked, states are busy fighting a bogey that does not exist. Probably because it is easier to fight a made-up enemy, than to deal with real issues. There are jail sentences as high as five years for any Muslim man caught and accused of perpetuating love jihad.

While those who believe in grand international conspiracies to subvert women and turn them into weapons against their own communities will never believe the evidence of no conspiracy – there is no reason for the rest of us to fall for made-up fears. The law, if it comes in, will be a violation of both personal liberty and of personal choice. Women will become the target of this law, just as much as Muslim men. The proposed law will question the very basis of agency and choice.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is also a columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.

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