“Love Jihad” and Segregationist Religious Crackdowns in Uttar Pradesh

In recent days the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh, located in the northern part of the country, Hindu nationalist extremists have been conducting vigilante police work, in coordination with the police, to enforce religious purity in romantic relationships. The province, which is the most populous in India, and firmly a part of the nation’s large Hindu belt in which president Modi has whipped up nationalist sentiments, also has many Muslim inhabitants. This means that, inevitably, some people from both religious communities enter romantic partnerships and seek long-term relationships, which has come under increasing scrutiny in a polarized nation.

The most recent iteration of a long conflict between Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent has seen a wave of conspiracy minded policy and extralegal action, including significant violence, that seeks to separate interfaith couples and brutalizes its victims. However, due to tacit state support and a shaky legal framework for separations, there is little recorded data on this phenomenon. It is only through the work of investigative journalists in India that this information is now being brought to light.

The origins of these crackdowns trace back to a racial conspiracy theory called “love jihad”, in which Muslim men supposedly seek to propoagate their faith through converting Hindu women and having Muslim families. Its proponents believe this will lead to some kind of population imbalance, even though the gap between Hindus and Muslims in India has actually trended the other way throughout the past fifty years. The conspiracy is totally baseless, yet Uttar Pradesh and several other provinces controlled by Modi’s party have enacted anti conversion legislation that ostensibly tries to prevent conversion via “force, fraud, or marriage”, but which often promotes just that if it serves the interests of the Hindu nationalist cause.

It allows those who wish to separate interreligious marriage or romantic coupling a legal framework to do so, and indeed, 79 of the 85 cases which have been registered under the law since its passing in late 2020 have been separations of Muslims and Hindus, specifically targeting Muslim men. India’s supreme court has upheld the laws  in spite of this clear pattern of discrimination, and the harassment and violence towards interfaith couples has only increased since.

Writing in the Intercept, journalists Amer Khan (himself a Muslim) and Betwar Sharma described a meeting with the leadership of the youth wing of BJP, the Hindu Nationalist party responsible for “love jihad” laws, and other nationalist leaders. These men described coordinating with the police and victims’ families to emotionally manipulate young Hindu women and to brutalize their Muslim partners, with violence a commonplace tactic. Vigilantes apparently instructed families to fake heart attacks and other medical emergencies to traumatize their victims into abandoning their partners. 

The BJP youth leader in the city of Shahjahanpur described punching a Hindu woman squarely in the face when she would not abandon her beloved, and bragged that it caused her to bleed from her mouth. He then threatened to throw acid on her, cut off her nose, and have her partner murdered by the police. He described other, more long term tactics that vigilantes use to “break” their victims. He describes keeping Hindu women in extrajudicial solitary confinement for months at a time without access to mobile phones or contact with the outside world. For Muslims, they often turn to far more violent tactics, with BJP youth leaders describing the violent beatings they mete out with pride. They then often book these men and give them criminal records under the “love jihad” law, making them unable to advance in their careers and social lives.

These violent and cruel terror tactics are unacceptable at every level. They violate the rights of a minority religious community and young people’s freedom of movement and expression simply on the basis of cultural chauvinism, and the tacit and material support that governmental authorities have given these horrific practices mark them out as equally responsible. There must be pressure on this ultranationalist government to respect the rights of minorities in an incredibly diverse nation, or violence may, and indeed probably will increase. Many Hindu nationalists are calling for a desecularization of the nation. If they are successful in this campaign of ethnic cleansing, who knows where they will stop?