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For more than a decade, right-wing Hindu groups in India have conjured the specter of a “love jihad” among Muslim men: a campaign to court Hindu women with the intention of converting them to Islam. Nationalist and sectarian groups around the world have long tried to mobilize supporters by suggesting that rapacious outsiders might seek to prey upon vulnerable women. Under the leadership of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the state of Uttar Pradesh—home to India’s largest Muslim population—passed a law in November that imposes stringent punishments against religious conversion as part of marriage. Four other BJP-run states promise to follow suit.
Where the BJP claims to see smoke, there is no fire. Interfaith marriages in India are fairly uncommon. Most Indians marry within their religion and their caste groups. A 2013 study found that less than five percent of Indians marry outside their caste and just over two percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 had married outside their religions.
Nevertheless, Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-clad, tonsured monk who is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has campaigned on the issue, going so far as to threaten “funeral processions” for those who “played with the honor of sisters and daughters.” Adityanath’s crusade against love jihad is not just a quixotic struggle. It marks an ominous turn in the BJP’s deepening culture war. The party swept to power under India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 by promising to deliver meaningful economic change. Instead, it has pursued a polarizing ideological agenda to move secular India toward the principles of Hindu nationalism. The government has passed law after law that endangers the rights of minorities—Muslims in particular—and now even seeks to limit the right of Indians to love.
The Uttar Pradesh law prohibits conversion by force, coercion, or financial inducement. It also prohibits “conversion by marriage,” marriage ceremonies that require conversion during or before the ritual to ensure that both parties have the same religion. Were a person to want to convert to a different religion (whether or not the conversion was for the purpose of getting married), that person would have to give 60 days’ notice to local authorities, who would then ask the police to conduct an inquiry into the “real intention, purpose, and cause of the proposed religious conversion.”
Uttar Pradesh police have enforced the new law with alacrity. They filed five cases in the first nine days after the law was introduced. Police detained one couple following rumors that the bride was a Hindu—then released them after confirming that both bride and groom were Muslim (and allegedly torturing the groom at the police station). A woman who converted from Hinduism to Islam to marry a Muslim man of her own free will had a miscarriage while detained at a police station.
Authorities have applied the law selectively, in telling ways. The police refused to file a complaint against a Hindu man who married a Muslim woman. In another case, the police acted on a complaint from the Hindu Mahasabha, a right-wing political group, to disrupt the wedding of a Hindu bride and Muslim groom, even though neither party intended to convert to the other’s religion. The law also allows reconversion to Hinduism. In effect, the law makes it more difficult for people to convert away from Hinduism and for interfaith couples to marry, while emboldening right-wing groups.
With the national Parliament and many state legislatures firmly in BJP hands, the only recourse against the law may be through India’s judiciary. And lawyers have already filed a challenge at the Allahabad High Court, the highest court in Uttar Pradesh. The petition argues that marriage and religion are questions of personal choice in which the state has no role to play. The case will likely work its way up to India’s Supreme Court, which has a complex jurisprudence regarding questions of conversion.
The only recourse against the law may be through India’s judiciary.
In the 1970s, the Supreme Court upheld laws that prohibited forced religious conversion, maintaining that freedom of religion does not include the right to convert others. But more recently, the Court has developed a strong jurisprudence protecting the freedom to choose. In a 2006 case, the Court directed the police to protect couples from different caste groups who sought to marry. An adult, the Court held, was free to choose whom to marry.
That 2006 case laid the foundation for the first love jihad case to reach the Supreme Court. In 2017, a 24-year-old Hindu woman from the southern state of Kerala converted to Islam and took the name Hadiya. When her father filed a case before the Kerala High Court, alleging that Hadiya was about to be transported to Syria, Hadiya appeared in court with a Muslim man, Shafin Jahan, and told the judges they were married. The high court was aghast. It moved her to a women’s dorm, with instructions that she could not use a cell phone and could meet only with her parents. Later, it annulled her marriage.
Shafin appealed to the Indian Supreme Court, which asked the National Investigating Agency, India’s counterterrorist force, to investigate whether he was linked with terrorist organizations and whether Hadiya had been indoctrinated. But when the judges spoke to Hadiya, she insisted that she had converted to Islam, and married Shafin, of her own free will. The case generated a media storm, pitting the values of women’s liberation and secularism against murky fears of Islamist terrorism. In the end, the Supreme Court framed the case as a question of choice: Hadiya was an adult, the Court held, and she had a constitutional right to marry the person she chose.
Anxieties about conversion and interfaith marriage are not new in India. Anticonversion laws exist in nine out of 29 states. But many of these laws focus on prohibiting forced conversion, including by threat of violence, invoking divine displeasure, and promising social ostracism if somebody refuses to convert. Laws introduced in the northern states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand since 2019 have made voluntary conversion by marriage an offense as well, unless parties go through complex new procedures before they convert.
Although Indian law permits interfaith marriage, the requirements for interfaith couples are far more onerous than the laxer rules for couples of the same faith. Interfaith couples must apply to a government office 30 days in advance of their marriage day, providing their parents’ names and home addresses. By contrast, couples of the same faith may be married in religious ceremonies without prior notice. It is even optional for those couples to register their marriage with local authorities.
The passage of the law on love jihad in Uttar Pradesh marks a new moment in the ascendance of Hindu nationalism in the country more broadly. Since coming to power in May 2014, the ruling BJP has sought to give its ideological projects legal force and authority. In 2018, the government made “triple talaaq”—a form of divorce in sharia law in which a Muslim man can divorce his wife by simply saying talaaq (“divorce” in Arabic and Urdu) three times—a punishable offense. Many saw the criminalization as an excessive measure, since the Supreme Court had already declared the practice of triple talaaq invalid in India. But the BJP passed legislation on the matter anyway, to signal that it had no qualms reforming sharia law and potentially irking Indian Muslim legal groups.
In August 2019, the government demoted Jammu and Kashmir from a state to a union territory under the thumb of New Delhi, fulfilling a long-held Hindu nationalist desire to strip Jammu and Kashmir—India’s only Muslim-majority state—of its nominal autonomy and yoke it closer to India. And in November 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that a Hindu temple could be built on the site of a mosque that Hindu nationalists controversially demolished in 1992; Hindu nationalists claim that the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh stood on an ancient temple that marked the birthplace of Ram, a god in the Hindu pantheon. The Court agreed that the mosque’s destruction nearly three decades ago was illegal, but it still allowed the construction of a temple to go ahead. Hindu groups celebrated the decision, while Muslims resigned themselves to the solace that at least the case was closed. Perhaps an abiding wound could now heal and all parties move on.
Instead, a month later in December 2019, the government passed a controversial law that, along with a proposed national register of citizens, threatened to strip many Muslims of their citizenship. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that the government’s proposed measures would potentially expose millions of Indian Muslims to “detention, deportation and statelessness.” The passage of the citizenship law led to nationwide protests. Riots broke out in Delhi at the end of February 2020, coinciding with U.S. President Donald Trump’s two-day visit to India. Constitutional challenges to the citizenship act are pending before the Supreme Court, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the Court’s proceedings and it is unclear when these challenges will be heard.
The BJP has nevertheless pressed ahead in its cultural war to remake secular India into a nation defined by Hindu identity. In an event overflowing with symbolism, Modi and Adityanath laid the foundation stone for the new temple at Ayodhya on August 5 this year, which just coincidentally was the first anniversary of the end of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood.
It seems likely that the government’s next step will be to introduce a uniform civil code, a universal law of marriage and divorce set to replace the overlapping legal frameworks that currently govern India’s numerous religious communities. This uniform code would be a major change for all religious communities, but especially for Muslims, for whom sharia law governs matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance largely outside the formal court system. Although the constitution enjoins the state to eventually install a uniform civil code, successive governments have failed to take the plunge for fear of its political costs. But the BJP can proceed unconstrained by the need to engage traditional minority power blocs.
Taken together, these developments suggest to religious minorities—and to Muslims in particular—that they are destined to become second-class citizens. Laws regarding love jihad, a fantastical phenomenon, only confirm this trend. The Indian constitution guarantees the right to equality and the freedom of religion, including the right to practice and propagate faith, to all citizens. Today’s BJP passes laws that grate against the spirit and letter of the constitution and that gravely affect religious minorities, despite the fact that the party does not include a single Muslim legislator in its ranks in Parliament.
The courts, however slow their proceedings and varied their results, offer some shelter from the BJP’s legislative assault. In a society that still holds family and community above the individual, the idea that marriage is a question of individual choice—and that courts and the state must protect that choice—is revolutionary. Couples from different backgrounds across the country have long approached local courts to seek police protection from their families. In recent years, LGBTQ Indians have challenged the Indian unnatural sexual offenses law, a 158-year-old colonial-era act that criminalized gay sex. The Supreme Court struck the law down in 2018. LGBTQ couples have now drawn on this same jurisprudence to seek marriage equality. (I was among the lawyers leading the sodomy law challenge in 2018 and now represent two couples in the same-sex marriage case.)
Those victories and struggles offer some hope in the midst of deepening gloom. The wider implications of love jihad laws are alarming. They signify the gradual foreclosing of the political, legal, and social protections that religious minorities in India enjoy. Intolerance has now gained the force of law. The right to choose—whom to love and whom to worship—may not survive the rise of the Hindu right.