Religion, Sectarian Nationalism and Interfaith Marriages

marriage mehendi

One Hindu woman in Kanpur, UP lodged a complaint against her Muslim husband on the charge that he forcibly converted her. As it turned out she was forced to sign the FIR by Hindutva groups and she went to the police station, turned hostile and stated that the aggressive Hindu nationalist groups had forced her to file the complaint. Betwa Sharma and Ahmer Khan report that “Hindu nationalist groups in Uttar Pradesh are using anti-conversion law to violently break up interfaith couples and propagate anti-Muslim conspiracy theory. They report that for decades Hindu nationalist groups have operated extra legally to obstruct interfaith relationships and targeted the Muslim men on this ground.

The UP Government has brought in ‘Unlawful Conversion of Religion ordinance 2020’, which overtly does not prohibit Hindu Muslim marriage but has been used by the Vigilante groups in collaboration with police to harass the couples and frame the Muslim men. The phenomenon of love jihad has been propped up during last few decades to polarize the society and put brakes on the women/girls getting more autonomy in their lives. Here aggressive patriarchal agenda is being put to use for communal politics. The bogey of interfaith marriage and conversion is a powerful tool to polarize the society.

This is not the only way patriarchal values can be seen in the society. Due to conservatism and religious practices also the interfaith marriages are opposed and the couples victimized. One recalls the murder of Ankit Saxena who was murdered by the family members of the Muslim girl whom he loved and intended to marry. Currently in Kashmir there two Sikh girls changed over to Islam for marriage to Muslim boys. There were allegations of forced conversion but the girls affirmed that they have converted out of their free will. One of them was forced to marry a Sikh boy.

The other Sikh girl Dhanmeet converted to Islam to marry her batch mate who is a Muslim. The couple as per some reports is untraceable, absconding to avoid the reaction of Sikh community. Sikh community hit the streets in Srinagar and other places accusing that their girls are being abducted, converted and getting married off to Muslims. Dhanmeet has released a video stating that she has converted of her own free will and the marriage is by mutual consent.

Here we can clearly see that in case of Ankit Saxena and Sikh girls it is not geared around communal politics, which is the main culprit overall in today’s India. This is explained by the finding of PEW research which shows that most of the people in India, irrespective of the faith they follow, are bound by religious traditions and rituals.

This study done in 26 states in 17 languages, interviewed 30000 people. Though the sample is not very big but still it gives a lot of indication of the grip of religion on the society and people. As per this 80% Muslims and 64% Hindus felt that it is important to stop people from marrying outside of their religion. The study showed that for many Hindus, religious and Indian national identity is closely intertwined. Writer Lebo Diseko points out “Indians simultaneously express enthusiasm for religious tolerance and a consistent preference for keeping their religious communities in segregated spheres – they live together separately,” the study said.” Hindu Muslim marriages have been opposed usually by conservative families and now there are laws which pose hurdles. These laws brought in by BJP rule relate to conversions by means of force or fraud though not directly opposing interfaith marriages.

Overall one can say that interfaith marriages are few and far between and may not be statistically significant in India or South Asian countries.  In more secularized countries like America those who married between 2010 and 2014 the interfaith coulees were 40% of population; the same percent was 19% before 1960. One presumes interfaith type marriages are more common in societies where the grip of religion is not so strong. Secularization process has run parallel to overthrowing of feudal structures of society while ushering in modern democracies.

In both these two types of opposition, the one’s dictated by communal politics and the one’s dictated by the conservatism in matters religious, the outcome is similar i.e. harassment of the couple, criminalizing the marriage and punishing the male and trying to get the girl married off to person of their own religion. The opinion of the girl is undermined, ignored or suppressed. A yoga center has been set up in Kerala to bring back the girls from non Hindu spouse.

It is likely that the rise of Communalism and love jihad campaign launched by it; has strong impact on the conservative religious beliefs. One can guess that in the times of rise of sectarian politics, the conservatism goes up.

The common factor between both these types of opposition to interfaith marriages is the prevalence of patriarchal values, where the concept is that women’s lives are to be controlled all through. Patriarchy is an inherent part of religious practices as well. In India the grip of religion is strong as the process of secularization has remained weak. As national movement was growing with values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the religious nationalism was also all through opposing it and harping on the glorious ancient values, meaning caste-gender hierarchy and patriarchy. When asked what are the major challenges Nehru is facing in building Modern India Nehru had aptly said that we have a secular constitution but the society is in the grip of Religion. So true!



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Dr Ram Puniyani

Dr Ram Puniyani was a professor in biomedical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and took voluntary retirement in December 2004 to work full time for communal harmony in India. Email: [email protected]

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