On 18 May 2022, in New Delhi, Aaftab Poonawala, 28, strangled his companion, Shradda Walker, 27, before dismembering her corpse. Six months later, on 22 November, he was arrested for this murder.
In 2021, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, charges for domestic violence were filed with the Indian police every four minutes. But rather than seeing Shradda Walker as the victim of an umpteenth feminicide, Indian public opinion preferred to consider it a case of ‘Love Jihad,’ a conspiracy theory which holds that men of Muslim confession seek to forcibly convert Hindu women and marry them in order to increase the Muslim population in India.
A few days after Aaftab was arrested for murder, Ram Kadam, an MP from Maharashtra, the couple’s home-State, publicly advised the Dehli police, in charge of the case, to investigate a possible case of ‘Love Jihad’ involving an attempt at forced conversion. For Shradda was Hindu and Aaftab Muslim.
The two young people had met in Mumbai through a dating app in 2019. They started going out together, then moved to the capital, New Delhi, despite the objections of Shradda’s parents. In India, inter-religious couples are the object of discriminations just like inter-cast couples and tend to meet with the disapproval of their families. A recent study by the Pew Research Centre shows that 75% of the Indian population, Hindus, and Muslims alike, consider it undesirable for their daughter to marry a man from a different religion. Forced marriages involve nine couples out of ten and remain the norm.
The multiplication of anti-conversion laws
Aasif Khan and Sakshi Sahu have known each other all their lives. They grew up in the same district in the Central State of Madhya Pradesh, went to the same school and fell in love at about the age of fifteen. Today, they are 25 and still in love. After having built their relationship on the quiet, the couple decided to marry under Hindu law. But the marriage is not regarded as lawful, since Assif is a Muslim. While his family approved the couple, Sakshi’s parents did not, and they locked her up in their home. ‘I couldn’t do anything alone, they took away my mobile. I was a prisoner.’ As she spoke, her voice broke. Her fingers kept frantically touching her red bracelets, betraying the young woman’s anxiety. She wore a yellow tunic and matching shawl, nervously rearranging it over her hair, while keeping her eyes lowered throughout our conversation.
Aasif told the rest of the tale in a firm voice: ‘Her brother threatened me. I tried to explain to them, tell them we were in love, wanted to marry. But things got too violent, too difficult, so we ran away and married under Hindu law, without the permission of our families.’ However, the couple were caught, Assif was accused of having abducted Sakshi and the matter ended in court. Ultimately, the young man was found not guilty. ‘Here it is, look,’ said Sakshi handing us the final verdict of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, a sheet of crumpled paper which seemed to have passed through many hands.
The couple arrived in New Delhi three months ago and live now in a makeshift home near Jamia Nagar, one of the capital’s Muslim districts. Neither of them is working. Will they have a child? ‘That will depend on our finances,’ said Sakshi. After they ran away, Sakshi converted to Islam and now calls herself Afin. When someone asks her first name, she replies: ‘Which one, the new one or the old one?’
Their families do not know where Assif and Sakshi are now, and though the couple would like to go back to Madhya Pradesh, they know it’s impossible, too dangerous. ‘The extremist groups have us in their cross-hairs’, Assif explains. The young couple are afraid of the anti-conversion laws that are devastating their home-state, laws aimed at ‘preventing religious conversions obtained by force, influence or ruse.’ Since 2020, eleven States have adopted anti-conversion laws. Madhya Pradesh is governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (Indian People’s Party, now ruling India) and was the second state to enact one.
A genuinely official Islamophobia
To understand the origins of this ‘Love Jihad’ we must go back to the end of the first decade of the new century in Kerala1, a State in southern India. In 2009, two young women, one Hindu, the other Christian, eloped with their Muslim boyfriends, encountered in college. The families decided to file complaints for abduction and the two couples were arrested by the local police. In court, the young women changed the reasons for their flight and accused the two men of forcibly abducting them and attempting to convert them. The sentence handed down by the Kerala High Court was the first legal decision to refer to a ‘Love Jihad’.
In 2020, a few months after the ‘Delhi riots’, during which 38 Muslims lost their lives according to the official figures, Assif Mijtab founded Miles2Smiles, an association which provides aid to victims of Islamophobia across the country. ‘The Love Jihad is part of an anti-Muslim political narrative. We are witnessing a genuinely government-sponsored Islamophobia,’ he rages behind a desk laden with medals awarded for his stubborn defence of human rights.
Ever since 2015 when BJP Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, there has been a resurgence of violence against Muslims. According to the India Spend Initiative, an independent research body, 90% of all crimes motivated by religious hatred perpetrated since 2009 have taken place during Modi’s term of office. According to the statistics compiled by Hate Crime Watch, an independent database which was shut down in 2019, 74% of the victims are Muslims, who only constitute 14% of the population, (i.e., 200 million individuals). At present 15 States out of 29 are governed by the BJP, and the country is witnessing a resurgence of Hindu nationalist groups.
2.2% of inter-religious couples
‘Every effort is made to complicate inter-religious marriages,’ says Aasif Iqoal, a founder of Dhanak for Humanity. This NGO claims to have helped 5,000 mixed couples since it was founded in 2004 by three inter-religious couples who wanted to create ‘a platform, a place to provide emotional support for people like us’. Aasif Iqbal explains. At fifty, he married Ranu, encountered at the university, over the objections of their respective families. ‘Today, they accept us, but it took time,’ he says with a smile. Dhanak’s offices are located in New Delhi, and it has three rooms were persecuted couples can stay. On the wall, a big white chart shows the wedding anniversaries of the couples supported by the association: ‘Farha and Ravi, 7 April, second anniversary. Nish and Vika, 16 April, second year of marriage.’
Every day, Assif Iqbal and his little team of two answer calls and emails from all over India. ‘The first thing I tell couples who come to see us is “forget about your families, don’t expect them to accept your marriage”. That may happen, but it’s very rare,’ he says gravely. ‘Then I advise them to inform the local authorities so as to be protected and ward off the threats of the family’s entourage.’
In India, marrying outside of your religion is an administrative nightmare. Alliances between people of different religions represent only 2.2% of couples nationwide.
You can marry under five different laws: the Hindu Marriage Act, the Muslim Marriage Act, the Christian Marriage Act, the Parsee Marriage Act and finally the Special Marriage Act. To marry under the first four of these, both parties must practise the same religion. Therefore, mixed couples have no other choice than the Special Marriage Act, under which there is a thirty-day waiting period after the proposal is accepted for the contract to be validated. In the meantime, anyone opposed to the alliance may inform the authorities with one or more of the following arguments: the couple are under age (21 for men, 18 for women), the relationship is incestuous, the consent of one of the parties is uninformed, or one of them is already married.
‘In our home, we celebrate Eid and Diwali on an equal footing’
Parveen is 28 and met her husband in Delhi University. After the couple had secretly married under the Special Marriage Act during the Covid quarantine, the local jurisdiction informed the families. Parveen’s family then tried to lock her up and confiscated her mobile phone. As for the young woman’s brother, he threatened her partner with physical violence. After getting in touch with Dhanak, the couple managed to run away and the marriage was officially validated on 28 May 2020.
Theirs is not an isolated case. Every wedding celebrated under the Special Marriage Act is publicised by the local jurisdiction: the parents are often informed as a matter of course and the marriage contract posted in the offices of the District Magistrate. ‘The authorities imagine that children sometimes behave irresponsibly and that the parents have to be informed.’ says Tanvir Aeijaz jocularly. He teaches political science at Delhi University and has made a speciality of the ‘Love Jihad.’
When Tanvir, a Muslim, married Vinita, a Hindu, via the Special Marriage Act, 25 friends of the couple came to the wedding as witnesses. That was in 2003. ‘We were afraid. The Gujarat riots (during which 790 Muslims were killed according to the government) had taken place a year before, the atmosphere was very hostile,’ Vinta Sharma explains. She teaches economics at Delhi University. ‘We got married in Delhi, we were afraid the groups of Hindu nationalists might try to harm us,’ Tabvir Aeijaz adds.
Today, Tanvir’s and Vinta’s families have accepted the couple despite their misgivings when the marriage was announced. ‘When my parents met Tanvir, they asked him if he was going to make me convert, wear a hijab, if I was going to have to give up my studies and stop working,’ Vinta says with a smile. Tanvir bursts out laughing at his wife’s recollections. The couple live in the capital and have two children. ‘It’ll be up to them to choose their religion. In our home, we celebrate Eid and Diwali (a Hindu holiday) on an equal footing,’ Vinta concludes.
A patriarchal theory
‘In the event there is a conversion, it’s most often the woman who abandons her religion,’ Tanvir Aeijaz explains. ‘It’s the woman who suffers the most. Her family abandons her so she has no choice but to convert in the hope she’ll be recognised by her husband’s family’, he adds.
Charu Gupta, professor of history at Delhi University and author of Love taboos: controlling Hindu-Muslim romances sees eye-to-eye with the married couple.
‘Associated with the rhetoric of inclusion-exclusion, on both the domestic and foreign fronts, the imaginary threats and dangers of the Muslim “peril” are a reflection of the deep anxieties linked to the “infiltration” of the “other” in the domestic, intimate, sexual and social spaces, as well as the anguish bound up with the transgressions of women, endangering that aspect of life which is regarded as the purest and most private.’
Because while previously the ‘Love Jihad’ concerned only the family, it has moved out of the private sphere and become political since the BJP took power in 2014. In Uttar Pradesh, the first state to have enacted an anti-conversion law, the ‘Love Jihad’ has even become an electoral argument. At the end of 2020, Yogi Adityanath, a fanatical monk, a member of BJP and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, declared he wished ‘to protect the honour and the dignity of women,’ from the ‘Love Jihad phenomenon’. Not long afterwards, in November 2021, India’s first national anti-conversion law was enacted. In the six months that followed its publication, 16 inquiries for forced conversion were opened in Uttar Pradesh and 79 men were arrested, according to Government figures. All were Muslims.
1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The only Indian State to be regularly governed by a Communist party, in alternation, with the Congress Party, Kerala is socially and politically the most progressive State in the country.