At its heart, the furore over 'Love Jihad' reveals an anxiety over the increase in inter-religious marriages and women's freedom, says Charu Gupta, associate professor of history at Delhi University, whose areas of research include the colonial history of Uttar Pradesh and issues of gender and sexuality. In an interview with Indulekha Aravind, Sharma discusses the "bogey" of Love Jihad and the factors for its re-emergence. Edited excerpts:
Would you consider inter-religious marriages, which is essentially what 'Love Jihad' is, a challenge to existing caste and social hierarchies?
In the short term, Love Jihad is a bogey raised with elections in mind because the right-wingers feels it can draw sharper lines between Hindus and Muslims. And issues to do with women or the family are much more emotive and have a more universal appeal. But if you look at the long-term perspective, there is an increasing anxiety over the increase in inter-religious marriages. I've talked to lawyers in Allahabad who have told me that 10 years ago, they used to get three or four cases a month of inter-religious or inter-caste marriages, and now there are 30-40 cases in a day. Though propagandists claim the use of force in Love Jihad, what it amounts to is that you are against all love marriages because you are also claiming that Muslim boys are disguising themselves as Hindus. So even when a Hindu girl meets a Hindu boy, that would come under greater scrutiny. It amounts to complete control over the Hindu girls' movements, who they meet, where they go and reveals an anxiety over women going out much more and making independent choices, irrespective of caste or religion.
What does the phenomenon say about women's rights and the suggestion that women are passive participants in the entire process?
The whole campaign treats women as if they are completely foolish, with no mind or heart of their own, and so stupid that they can be wooed with a mobile phone or something like that. On the other hand, it shows anxiety because women are asserting their freedom. Of course, women are duped but by Hindu men as well as men of other religions. We operate in patriarchal structures, which run across caste and religions, and each case needs to be dealt with individually and investigated. The problem arises when you see it as a concerted, organised conspiracy with a pattern.
We saw the issue cropping up in Kerala a few years ago, and you've written about parallels to the Arya Samaj raising it in the 1920s. What are the factors for the reemergence of Love Jihad?
Firstly, whenever there is an escalation of communal identity and communal violence, these kind of issues emerge in a much sharper way. Additionally, every time this issue emerges, there could be different contexts. Political power is very much related to it. In Kerala, it was different, because the Hindu right-wing did not have much of a foothold there and it felt this could be an issue which would provide it. But I do think that whenever an incident like a Muzaffarnagar or Saharanpur happen, it becomes a much more emotive issue. Secondly, the fact that women are increasingly taking decisions for themselves. Thirdly, the whole spectre of global terrorism and the context of certain Muslim groups being associated with it - they feel they can get legitimacy because of the larger fear of global terrorism.
A point often raised is that Hindu women have to convert to marry Muslim men. Your comments.
There are two factors here. One, conversions are a constitutional right of every citizen. I'm a historian who has worked on this and I know that those who have been on the margins, such as Dalits or even widows, have converted because they felt they could get a better life - would we call that forced? The other is the way the Special Marriage Act is structured, where you need to display a notice publicly for a month and so on. Muslim families oppose inter-religious marriages as much as Hindu families and the couple in question would be facing a lot of opposition, So, sometimes, conversions could provide an easier way out. There are also instances of the woman converting in name only, and where the couple enjoys a syncretic marriage.
How do you see the campaign that is playing out?
I think the one thing this campaign has shown successfully is that economic development can exist comfortably with moral conservatism. But the Bharatiya Janata Party is realising that it will perhaps not be beneficial in the long run, which is why none of the top leaders is talking about this issue. As a result, this could be continued by the party's foot soldiers, as a subterranean issue. But, what I hope is that people will realise that there is a rise in inter-religious marriages. Love really knows no boundaries and this kind of censorship will not work on the ground.