The Bharatiya Janata Party government of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, has enacted a law criminalising inter-faith marriages performed without state approval.
The law, which ostensibly aims at prevention of forced conversions, came in the wake of a campaign by the BJP and allied groups against an alleged conspiracy by Muslims to inveigle Hindu women into romantic affairs with a view to converting them to Islam.
The conspiracy theory was aired first by Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, an obscure outfit based in the southern state of Karnataka, in its website. Without offering any supporting evidence, it said at least 30,000 women had been converted in Karnataka alone.
After the media dubbed the alleged project Love Jihad, the BJP launched a campaign against it in its northern strongholds.
Brought in through the ordinance route last November, the UP law requires those wishing to change their religion after wedding to apply to the district magistrate for permission a month in advance. The marriage is liable to be nullified if it was found that conversion was solely for the purpose of marriage.
It prescribes a jail term of one to five years for a person responsible for an illegal conversion if the person converted is a minor, a Dalit, an Adivasi or a woman. In other cases, the jail term will be two to ten years. The rationale behind differential punishment based on age, caste and gender of the alleged victim is unclear.
Within days of promulgation of the law, police reportedly blocked half a dozen inter-faith marriages, including at least one which did not involve conversion. Some arrests were also made.
Four other BJP-ruled states are said to be drawing up similar laws.
Citizens for Peace and Justice (CPJ), an NGO, has filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of the UP ordinance as also the Freedom of Religion Act enacted by neighbouring Uttarakhand in 2018, which contains similar provisions.
The CPJ contends that these laws attempt to control lives of individuals by not allowing them to make significant decisions with regard to their own lives. Psychological factors as well as political calculations lie behind the BJP move against inter-faith marriages.
An irrational fear of being swamped by the growing Muslim population has haunted Hindu communalists for more than a century. It was triggered by census reports about differential rates of population growth.
Partition witnessed massive flow of Hindus and Muslims in opposite directions. The 1951 census, the first after Partition, put residuary India’s Hindu population at 84.1% and Muslim population at
9.8%. Notwithstanding the wide gap between the two, communal elements continued to kindle Hindu fears by pointing to the higher growth rate of Muslim population. They suppressed the fact that the Muslim growth rate was falling commensurate with the rise in the community’s social and educational standards.
The 2011 census put the Hindu population at 79.8% and the Muslim population at 14.2%. Demographers said the difference between the growth rates of the two communities had narrowed further. They expected the Hindu and Muslim populations to stabilise in the 4:1 ratio.
This did not persuade those with political motives to re-think as they wanted to keep alive Hindu fears of being reduced to a minority.
Subrahmanyan Swamy, a BJP MP, argued in a recent article that, howsoever irrational and unrealistic Hindu fears might be, they needed to be addressed, and laws such as Freedom of Religion Act were necessary for that.
Indian society remains highly conservative, and marriages cutting across lines of caste and religion are still too few for the majority community to worry about its future.
In the circumstances one is constrained to conclude that the real motive behind Love Jihad laws is to deflect public attention away from the poor record of the BJP’s Central and state governments.
Recent genetic studies have traced the origin of the rigid caste system to the introduction of endogamy about 2,200 years ago. The date coincides with the rise of a Brahmin dynasty and the enforcement of caste-specific laws in the northern parts of the subcontinent. There is need to guard against ill-motivated laws leading the society back to that period.
The Special Marriages Act of 1954 enables persons professing different faiths to get married without conversion. It offers inter-faith couples the opportunity to enter into matrimony avoiding political and communal traps.