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The moment Sanjay Shukla got the call that a Hindu woman had run away from home with her Muslim boyfriend, he set in motion a search operation to find her and bring her back to her family in Bareilly, a city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Shukla, a father and drug store owner, relayed the information he received from one of the woman’s male relatives to the head of the far-right Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Bareilly district. Pawan Arora immediately phoned a senior state police official.
“We have just got information that a Muslim boy has run away with a Hindu girl. Take her number and put it on surveillance immediately,” Arora said. “No case has been registered yet, the information has just come in. I thought I would tell you. We need to be active — they may leave the city.”
Arora called Shukla back and instructed him to tell the woman’s family to file a complaint at the local police station that she had gone missing. Shukla advised the family not to accuse the man of forcing her to flee, which she could dispute if the case ended up in court. He also told them to stop calling her — if she decided to turn off her phone, the police could lose her location.
Shukla described the woman as an educated 27-year-old schoolteacher from a well-respected, upper-caste family, and that the man was unfit to be in a relationship with her.
“Her parents have a big house and gave her every comfort. Why would she go with a Muslim who is a munshi to some lawyer?” he said, using the Hindi word for bookkeeper, which is considered a lowly job. “Do your parents raise you to shame them in their old age?”
According to Shukla, the woman would never choose to be with the man unless he had “brainwashed” her. It was up to self-appointed saviors like Shukla to rescue her.
“We have to get the woman back in our control,” he said. “We have to save her and Hindu society.”
In under 12 hours, Shukla and the police tracked down the couple and returned the woman home.
For decades, Hindu nationalist groups in India have operated extralegally to foil interfaith relationships, in part by spreading a baseless anti-Muslim conspiracy theory they call “love jihad”: that Muslim men pursue Hindu women to convert them to Islam and eventually outnumber India’s Hindu majority.
In November, Uttar Pradesh began to enforce the Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, a law that ostensibly prohibits religious conversions by force, fraud, or marriage. While the law does not explicitly ban marriage between Hindu women and Muslim men, Hindu vigilantes in the state have wielded it to lead unencumbered “love jihad” investigations in collaboration with the police, often using violence and manipulation, with the ultimate goal of cementing India as a Hindu supremacist nation. The vigilantes pursue alleged cases of “love jihad” despite the national government’s insistence that such a crime does not legally exist.
In January, we met with several grassroots leaders of the VHP, its youth wing Bajrang Dal, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the mothership of Hindu nationalist organizations including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Some of the men told us they agreed to be interviewed only because one of the reporters has a Hindu last name; given the intensity of their anti-Muslim hate speech, we were cautious to avoid revealing that the other reporter was Muslim.
The vigilantes typically learn about an interfaith relationship through local informants and then call the police to request cellphone surveillance of runaway couples. After a woman is found, Hindu hard-liners often give “counseling” to convince her to leave her Muslim partner. If she refuses, they resort to emotional blackmail, often from her parents, or threaten her and her partner with violence. In some cases, the hard-liners arrange for the woman to marry a Hindu man who might also be affiliated with right-wing groups.
The Hindu right’s state-sanctioned crackdown on “love jihad” has been devastating for its victims, who have little recourse under a law that reinforces social taboos in India around exogamy. According to a Pew Research Center report from last month, 67 percent of Hindus said it’s very important to prevent Hindu women from marrying outside their religion, and 76 percent of Muslims opposed Muslim men entering interfaith marriages. Amid the deadly second wave of Covid-19 in India, it has become even more fraught for couples to seek refuge.
“This law has created a lot of fear and panic. It doesn’t mention the word ‘love jihad,’ but we know it is targeting one community,” said Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak of Humanity, a New Delhi-based nonprofit that advocates for the welfare of interfaith couples. “They have done this to divide communities. They have succeeded.”
Codifying Conspiracy Theories
Of India’s 1.2 billion people, 966 million are Hindu and 172 million are Muslim, according to the most recent census data. Muslims are India’s largest minority community and comprise the third-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan.
The Hindu right has long peddled the dangerous myth that Muslims are taking over India. There were 300 million more Hindus than Muslims in 1951, and the gap increased to over 800 million by 2011, said S.Y. Quraishi, author of “The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning, and Politics in India.” This squares with census data that shows that Muslim population growth hit a 20-year low in 2011. “There is no evidence of Muslims overtaking Hindus in India,” Quraishi said.
But facts and figures make no difference to the men who say their goal is to transform India into a Hindu rashtra — a Hindu country — in part by stopping marriages between Hindu women and Muslim men.
“If one daughter from our community goes to their community, that means there will be 10 terrorists in their community. If she has 10 children, they will be terrorists,” said Rajesh Awasthi, a 44-year-old father and VHP leader in Shahjahanpur. “We will lose out on one family, and they will gain 10 families.”
The men we spoke to repeated the same false narratives about the tactics that Muslim men use to target Hindu women: that Muslim men masquerade as Hindu using Hindu names and religious symbols; that Muslim women befriend Hindu women to introduce them to their “jihadi” brothers; that Muslim shopkeepers, especially those who run mobile phone shops, keep an eye on Hindu women in the area; that local mosques give young men money to pursue Hindu women and reward them for successfully marrying and converting her — the higher her caste, the more money he receives.
Some of the hard-liners claimed that Muslims seek employment as drivers and cooks in Hindu households, often working for lower wages than their Hindu counterparts, so they can lure women in the family.
“They are savages. They only want to expand Islam,” Awasthi said. “They get close to the women in our homes and then they carry out ‘love jihad’ in our homes to convert them. That is why they work for less. They get money from elsewhere. They will wait for three years to convert one Hindu girl.” He advised that Hindus should not employ Muslims in their homes.
Such unfiltered anti-Muslim views were once considered on the fringe in India. But since Modi’s rise to power in 2014, Hindu nationalism has gone mainstream.
The Hindu right established its foothold in Uttar Pradesh starting in the 1980s, when a BJP-led movement to build a temple in Ayodhya culminated in the demolition of the Babri mosque by Hindu activists in 1992, triggering one of the deadliest communal riots in India’s history. Last year, Modi attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the temple that Hindu nationalists had agitated for decades ago.
The 2017 election of Yogi Adityanath, a far-right monk and longtime proponent of “love jihad,” as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh has emboldened Hindu vigilantes to target Muslims — who comprise about 20 percent of India’s most populous state — with impunity, including for allegedly slaughtering cows.
“Respected Modi ji and Yogi ji have come to us like gods,” said Awasthi, using an honorific after their names. “Since the governments of Yogi ji in UP and Modi ji in India, Hindus are proud.”
We witnessed VHP leaders call police officers to inform them about couples on the run, demand surveillance of their mobile phones, and exchange updates on their whereabouts.
The right-wing group has a vast network of informers in cities and villages throughout the state: in schools, colleges, buses, coffee shops, gyms, hotels, cinema halls, courts, and coaching centers for after-school tutoring. In smaller cities and the hinterlands, where the VHP and Bajrang Dal have considerable influence, Hindus will inform on women in their own families. Even marriage officials in some Hindu communities will inform a woman’s parents.
“The better network we have, the better chance we have of finding out what the girl is saying,” Ashish Baliyan, a 23-year-old Bajrang Dal leader in Bijnor, told us. “In every school, in every class, we have our boys.”
In Hardoi district, we spoke with Bajrang Dal leader Pawan Rastogi, a 34-year-old father and businessman as he worked with police officers on a case involving a Hindu minor.
“The work that the VHP and Bajrang Dal workers used to do on its own now has the full support of the police.”
Rastogi said he was coordinating with the inspector of the police station in Shahabad, where the family had registered the complaint. He dispatched two teams of Bajrang Dal workers: one to follow the couple based on surveillance information he claimed he got from the police, and the other to gather information about the Muslim man.
“The work that the VHP and Bajrang Dal workers used to do on its own now has the full support of the police,” he said.
“All information is exchanged. We do all our work with the help of the public,” said sub-inspector Ram Sukhari Singh, as Rastogi stood next to her inside the police station.
While discussing the case with another VHP leader over the phone, Rastogi said that the Hindu family had to discipline the girl when she was found and force her to say she had been taken to a mosque where she had been pressured to convert.
The men who coordinate operations against “love jihad” are very careful about when to request that a case be registered under the anti-conversion law. If the Hindu woman appears likely to defend her partner before a judge and assert that the relationship is consensual, they are slow to invoke it. But if the woman is passive or her family is fully cooperating with the vigilantes, they are quick to use it.
While the law provides cover for their activities, the vigilantes often prefer to take matters into their own hands.
“Saam, Daam, Dand, Bhed”
Sanjay Shukla, who had helped find the 27-year-old Hindu woman in Bareilly the night before, was determined to give her “counseling.”
“She is very strong and fat. She speaks in English. She is a very shrewd girl,” he said, while scrolling through photos of the woman that her family had shared with him on WhatsApp. “I know that I’m going to wrestle with a snake, but I’m also determined. It is important to move quickly, or the situation can go beyond my control.”
Hindu vigilantes involved in “love jihad” operations described “counseling” sessions in which they use violent and coercive tactics to prevent a Hindu woman from continuing her relationship.
Awasthi, the VHP leader in Shahjahanpur, told us about a violent “counseling” session he gave to a Hindu woman who was involved with a Muslim man.
“When the girl said, ‘I will go with him,’ I gave her one punch and she started bleeding in the mouth. I pray to Lord Hanuman and I get strength from him,” he said. “My punch is such that I don’t need to hit anyone a second time.”
“As soon as the girl cries, she breaks, and we know that she is in our control.”
“I told her that I will throw tezaab on you,” he continued, referring to a cleaning chemical used in “acid attacks” against women in South Asia. “I will cut off your nose and I will get the Muslim encountered” — killed by the police extrajudicially. Awasthi told us he has four criminal cases pending against him, including for attempted murder.
The vigilantes often enlist the woman’s parents in their efforts, pressuring families to file police reports and telling them what to say.
Awasthi told us that he and other vigilantes instruct parents how to lie, threaten, and emotionally blackmail their daughters into ending their relationships, including by pretending to faint or have heart attacks. He shared an elaborate scheme in which he replaces a bottle of poison with a harmless blue or yellow liquid and then gets the parents to drink it and pretend they must be rushed to the hospital.
“As soon as the girl cries, she breaks, and we know that she is in our control,” he said. “We watch the girl for two or three months. We take away her mobile phone so that she can only speak with her family. It has never taken more than three months to bring a woman under our control.”
For Muslim men they suspect of committing “love jihad,” the hard-liners dole out similar punishments that Shukla called “saam, daam, dand, bhed” — persuasion, bribery, punishment, blackmail.
Sumit Khanna, a middle-aged father and VHP leader in Shahjahanpur, told us about how he and a group of other Hindu men beat a “big and strong and illiterate Muslim boy” with a plastic pipe after spotting him sitting with a “small and thin Hindu schoolgirl” in the neighborhood.
“That plastic pipe is so strong that it won’t break even if a truck goes over it. We threw him to the ground and hit him a lot. There was no place on his body that had not turned red. He was admitted to the hospital for 20 to 22 days, but his family did not complain to the police,” he said. “We told the teacher at her coaching center and her parents were informed. They stopped her studies in order to save her.”
“They Have Ruined My Future”
As of January, 14 of the 17 cases lodged under the anti-conversion law involved relationships between Hindu women and Muslim men. Since then, local reports of similar arrests have also emerged. The men face a prison term of one to 10 years — the maximum sentence is in cases involving a minor or a woman from a “scheduled caste,” the official government designation for the lowest rung of India’s caste system.
Owais Ahmed, a 21-year-old resident of Sharif Nagar village in Bareilly district, was the first person to be arrested under the law in December after the father of a Hindu woman accused him of trying to convert her. In the order granting bail to Ahmed, Bareilly district court Judge Suneel Kumar Verma wrote that there were no material facts in the initial police report to support the allegation. The woman had had an arranged marriage and moved away from their village months before the criminal complaint was filed.
At the time of the complaint, Ahmed had been planning to make a second attempt to join the Indian Army. “I’m disqualified because of this fake case against me,” he said. “They have ruined my future.”
Some runaway couples have been able to appeal to courts for help. The Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh has granted protection to hundreds of couples against harassment from police or their families, and the Delhi High Court has set some couples up in safe houses in the national capital.
Some couples seek refuge in cities like Delhi and Bangalore in the hopes of getting married under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, which permits civil marriage between people of any religion, but recently provisions in the law have been used to harass couples.
Despite efforts to protect interfaith couples, other states have moved to effectively legalize “love jihad” as a criminal offense. In addition to Uttar Pradesh, three more BJP-ruled states — Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and, most recently, Gujarat — have reenacted their anti-conversion laws with more stringent provisions. These laws, along with a similar one passed in Uttarakhand in 2018, have been challenged in the Supreme Court of India.
At a Zoom press conference organized by Dhanak of Humanity in February, a young Jain woman from Madhya Pradesh shared the challenges she and her Muslim husband have endured since getting married.
The couple had run away to Delhi in 2019, where, after the woman gave a police statement that she got married of her own free will, the Delhi High Court granted them protection if they stayed in Delhi. However, without a stable source of income and friends in the city, the couple returned to Madhya Pradesh where they are now living in fear. The woman said they did not disclose that they are an interfaith couple to their landlord.
When people back home learned of their relationship, “the Jain community got the shops of the Muslims emptied out, and they were taking out rallies saying that ‘we want the girl,’ even though I had given a statement in Delhi,” the woman said.
During the call, two men interrupted as other couples shared their stories, using expletives and anti-Muslim slurs to threaten them.
“I have taken a photo of everyone here,” one of the men said.
The number of young interfaith couples running away from home has risen after the new “love jihad” laws were passed, Asif Iqbal of Dhanak said, as they now fear imprisonment for who they choose to be with.
Dhanak has helped hundreds of couples find safe havens and navigate the judicial system. The group does not get involved in how a couple decides to get married, whether in a religious ceremony or through the Special Marriage Act, and it does not encourage conversions to any faith.
Amid the devastating second Covid-19 wave in India, Iqbal said it has been almost impossible for the group to do its work. Iqbal himself was hospitalized with Covid-19, and many other staffers fell ill.
Despite the pandemic, Dhanak has managed to eke out some support for couples. The group recently found a lawyer to help submit a letter to the Delhi police seeking protection for an interfaith couple from West Bengal who fled because the Hindu woman’s family was forcing her to marry another man.
“They are completely uprooted,” Iqbal said. “We try telling them to get jobs first, but you know how young couples are. They are in love. They don’t listen.”
Laws against religious conversion have been around since the 1960s under state governments ruled by the opposition Congress Party. In the decades since, Hindu nationalist groups campaigned against Christian missionaries who they claim persuade India’s most marginalized groups, Dalits and Indigenous Adivasis, to convert by giving them free medical care and education. Christians are 2.4 percent of the Indian population, and while some Dalits convert to escape the caste system, widespread forced conversion is unfounded.
In the past year, BJP politicians have given teeth to the spate of “love jihad” laws in their public threats to imagined perpetrators.
“I warn those who conceal identity and play with our sisters’ respect,” said Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, a month before the state’s law went into effect. “If you don’t mend your ways, your ‘Ram naam satya’ journey will begin” — invoking a chant said during Hindu funeral processions.
The national government has maintained an arm’s length from the “love jihad” conspiracy theory and the violent acts that are carried out in its name. It has told the Indian Parliament that there are no laws acknowledging the existence of “love jihad” and ruled out passing a national anti-conversion law, stating that related offenses are a state matter.
The lack of government intervention on “love jihad” serves the BJP’s interest in maintaining power in part through its acolytes, who help shore up the Hindu vote across castes and keep tensions between Hindus and Muslims inflamed.
The national government has maintained an arm’s length from the “love jihad” conspiracy theory and the violent acts that are carried out in its name.
Though the RSS has long been an upper-caste clique, its local leaders are very vocal about how they “rescue” Hindu women of all castes from “love jihad,” particularly Dalits. Their intention is to preserve the Hindu identity of lower-caste people and drive a wedge between Muslims and members of Hindu castes who have not harbored the kind of bigotry and resentment against minorities that India’s upper castes have.
The men we interviewed railed against Hindus mingling and working with Muslims, in effect advocating the social and economic sanction of the minority community.
They used degrading language when speaking about Indian Muslims, the treatment of Muslim women, and their consumption of beef.
Five young Bajrang Dal leaders who were working with Pawan Rastogi to find the Hindu minor told us that while they welcomed the “love jihad” law, they would rather it explicitly ban Hindu-Muslim marriages.
“It would save us from all this hassle,” said Jitender Rathore, who had returned from the Muslim man’s village without any new information about him and vowed to find more the next day. “We want such a law to be enforced in the entire country.”
The men believed that it is only a matter of time before the Indian Constitution is amended to establish India as a Hindu nation. Our mentions of secularism, enshrined in the Constitution, invited smirks from almost everyone we met.
“The word secular is wrong,” said Rastogi. “The Constitution will change either today or tomorrow. This will be a Hindu rashtra.”
Once a Hindu woman is “saved” from “love jihad,” the vigilantes may move quickly to arrange her marriage at the parents’ request or to prevent her from running away again.
When families are poor or from a marginalized caste, the hard-liners make all the wedding arrangements, including in the scenario that a Muslim woman is marrying a Hindu man in what is known as “ghar wapsi,” or “reconversion,” based on the right-wing belief that all Indians are descended from Hindus regardless of religion.
The woman’s “biodata” — which includes her photo, age, and caste — is posted on multiple WhatsApp groups populated with VHP and Bajrang Dal members, Awasthi said. Potential suitors start coming in almost immediately, many of them young men working for Bajrang Dal.
The hard-liners seek out a Hindu suitor who is twice the size of the woman in height and build, and who can provide for her. They look for someone with brothers who can fight the Muslim man and his male relatives if he tries reaching her again, and sisters or sisters-in-law who can keep her distracted.
Awasthi said that the vigilantes could get a woman married in a matter of days. If she is a minor, he said they find a match for her to marry when she turns 18. He told us that he had stopped over 100 interfaith marriages and arranged 11 marriages of Hindu women into Hindu families.
“I got a call from her parents saying she needs to be married now. I said, ‘Send her photo and biodata on WhatsApp,’” he said about an 18-year-old in a “love jihad” case he was working on. “Within an hour, I had WhatsApped them with the photos of four boys. They chose one. She was married in 36 hours.”
Shukla had failed to convince the Hindu woman in Bareilly to pursue a similar future. He told us that he had given up on the case, calling the woman too “headstrong,” and that he did not get enough support from her family to ensure that she would break off her relationship.
“I think that she will go back to the Muslim boy,” he said. “We can stop talking about this case now.”