Cover Story

JIHAD - An Indian Love Story

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Love Jihad today divides western Uttar Pradesh along communal and political lines
As you travel on the Meerut-Hapur road, around 25 kilometres from Meerut city, a small lane on the right takes you to Sarawa village. Police pickets all through its dingy lanes confirm that you are at the right place. It is a small village of around 100 houses. Sixty per cent of the population are Muslims; the rest Hindus, mainly Tyagis. Because they are a majority, only Muslims get elected as village pradhans. The villagers say there has never been any strife between the two communities; they have co-existed in peace. Recently, however, Sarawa’s communal dynamics changed completely, and we are guided to the house of the girl who was the reason for this.

A Hindu teacher at the village madrassa, she alleges that she was kidnapped, gang-raped and forcibly converted. She managed to escape from a madrassa in Muzaffarnagar and return home to narrate her story to her family. They filed a police case and those named in the FIR have been arrested. This includes the village pradhan Nawab, Sanahullah and a local girl, Nishat. You can sense an undercurrent of fear among Hindus: that once the police forces are removed from the area, Muslims might retaliate.

The girl’s father appears, from a wrecked house. He is followed by two women police constables posted there to guard the girl. Fear is written on his face, but he soon collects himself and relates their story. During the next half hour, he mentions the term ‘Love Jihad’ almost ten times.

“This is nothing but Love Jihad,” he says. “Muslims are behind this conspiracy of luring Hindu girls with money and dreams of a good life, and later selling them to Gulf countries. They had told my daughter too that she will be sent abroad.” He had no idea that such a term existed until his daughter’s return. He now speaks with complete certainty—Love Jihad is more than a catchphrase for him. Like many Hindus here, he sees it as an attack on their existence.

The phrase Love Jihad has found a place in every Hindu dialect of western Uttar Pradesh after the communal riots last year, following an eveteasing incident involving a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy in Shamli in late August. A mahapanchayat organised in Muzaffarnagar on 7 September coined a slogan, Beti Bachao, Bahu Bachao (Save Your Daughter, Save Your Daughter-in-Law); highlighting what it saw as an immediate threat. Since then, a number of incidents have led to the establishing of the phenomenon in the minds of Hindus in the region.

Last year, a case (CC-28/13) in Kharkhoda Police station was registered against 30-year-old Rahimmudin, a mistry from Pipli Kheda who is married and has three children. Rahimmudin had gone to perform repair work at a Hindu house in Phaphunda village, and eloped with the 19-year- old girl in the family. They did a nikaah and the couple filed a writ of habeas corpus at Chandigarh High Court to protect themselves from detention by the police (in such cases usually the girl’s family files a missing person report and the accused file a habeas corpus). They are staying together now.

“Going by his economic conditions, he is not so well off as to file a habeas corpus from Chandigarh. Where did he get all the money?” asks Krishan Pahal, an advocate fighting the case on behalf of the girl’s family. “Someone is helping him. I can understand if a young boy of the same age falls in love with a girl. But a married man with such an age difference does it intentionally.”

In a similar incident, Sajid, another 30-year-old married man with three kids, eloped with a Hindu girl early this year. A case (328/14) was registered against him at Meerut’s Parikshit Garh police station. Sajid drove a tractor and was engaged by the Hindu farmer family. The girl was 20 years old.

Such elopements have occurred in the past too. In 2008, a labourer named Haseen, 32 years old and married, eloped with a 14-year-old Hindu girl in Atalpur village under Kithore police station of Meerut. The girl was rescued by the police. She is an adult now and married, but makes it a point to attend the hearing of the case. It is only now that such incidents are being perceived as an organised conspiracy.

“This is part of a global Love Jihad that targets vulnerable Hindu girls who are entrapped and forced to convert to Islam. The BJP will oppose forced conversions and intervene on behalf of the victims,” says Dr Chandramohan, BJP’s UP spokesperson.

Pahal says that in his entire career he has fought 50 to 60 such cases from Meerut alone. On an average, he gets five to six cases every year. “In most of the cases, 99 per cent of the accused come from the labour class and are married. The age difference between the accused and the victim is very high,” he says. “They target Hindu girls from farmer families who are not very well off. They gift mobile phones, good clothes and promise a better life. It is not difficult for a girl to get trapped. By the time she realises the mistake it is often too late.” According to him, for every reported incident, there are at least 50 incidents that remain hidden because of social stigma and fear.

Love Jihad may have gained prominence only now in North India but in the deep south, especially Kerala and Karnataka, it has been a controversial subject for many years now. In August 2009, the Kerala High Court asked the state government to consider enacting a law prohibiting it. “Under the pretext of love, there cannot be any compulsive, deceptive conversion,” said Justice KT Sankaran of the Kerala High Court, while rejecting the bail applications of two people accused of Love Jihad. He went on to say that after going through the case diary of such cases, it was clear that there was a concerted effort to convert girls of a particular religion to another with the blessings of some religious outfits. The Court pointed out that there were 4,000 to 5,000 religious conversions due to love affairs in the last four years in Kerala alone.

Two weeks later, the Karnataka High Court also directed the state government to order a probe into Love Jihad cases. The order came during a hearing on a habeas corpus petition filed by the parents of a girl who had eloped with a Muslim boy from Kerala. In October 2009, the Karnataka Government ordered a Crime Investigation Department (CID) probe into the matter. In 2010, then Kerala chief minister VS Achuthanandan called Love Jihad an effort to turn Kerala into a Muslim majority state. Sri Ram Sene, a Hindu outfit, even runs special helplines in Kerala and Karnataka for alleged victims of Love Jihad.

In western Uttar Pradesh, fear has become a vital ingredient in fanning mistrust among the two communities. In the last few years, Hindus of the area have observed the rise of Muslims’ economic status and political power. Muslims have a population of over 52 per cent across the 22 districts of Western UP. New mosques and madrassas are coming up in nooks and corners of Harit Pradesh, a proposed new state in India that will be made up of the Western parts of UP. “There are areas where you will find only small kutcha (temporary) houses but there will be stately mosques and madrassas. Who is funding this?” asks Sudarshan Chakra, Meerut zonal secretary, Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Every village with a Muslim population has at least two madrassas and two mosques. Some villages such as Khujnawar in Saharanpur district have more than 20 madrassas. Some locals attribute this rise of funds coming to Muslims in western UP to meat exports. Buffalo meat accounts for 86 per cent of the total meat export from the country and a lot of this comes from abattoirs in western UP. The exporters are mostly Muslims. “They get higher price[s] for the meat they export and they use this extra money to fund other activities like building new madrassas, mosques and even funding illegal activities,” says Sandeep Pahal, a lawyer and RTI activist in Meerut. He is preparing to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court against meat export from the western UP region.

With madrassas increasing, there are also frequent arguments between temple and madrassa managements over the morning loudspeaker chants and namaaz drowning each other out. “They have money, power and support from the government. We cannot fight with them,” says the father of a Sarawa complainant. Hindus in the village are worried about the future. “When our girls come back home and complain about a Muslim boy [eveteasing or harassing], we first try to ignore it. We are simple farmers and don’t want to get into a fight,” says a villager in Sarawa. “But if it continues we get scared as even the police hesitate in registering complaints.”

Some politicians are even wary about openly admitting that they believe in Love Jihad’s existence. Raghav Lakhanpal, the BJP MP from Saharanpur, says, “There are individual cases of love affairs between boys and girls and I don’t see it as a trend.” His family runs an NGO, Mahila Sahyog Samiti which has been set up to counsel the alleged victims of Love Jihad but Lakhanpal denies it. “It is open for all the girls who need some counselling on these issues [dealing with runaway girls after they come back home],” he says.

Sixty-one-year-old Baba Rijak Das is seen as a guru in Saharanpur and adjoining areas by locals, who swear by his name, and Hindu families take their girls to him, saying he can cure them of Love Jihad. His disciple Baba Gopal Das refutes the claim. “Baba offers Prasad to everyone who comes here. The media is trying to malign his image.”

In some parts, Hindu families have devised their own solutions to keep Muslim boys and girls separate. In Meerut’s Prahlad Nagar area, the two communities live in close proximity, with a road dividing their residences. Last year a Muslim boy, son of a popular local doctor, fled with the daughter of a Hindu businessman. The doctor was pressurised by both communities to sever the match, and the girl came back. Since then, iron gates have been installed on all the streets where Hindus reside. “The [Muslim] boys used to come on bikes just to take a round of the streets and you could not say anything because the street doesn’t belong to anyone. Now with gates, the unwanted entry is restricted,” says a resident of the area.

Any communal tension offers fertile ground for political parties to exploit the situation. Recent riots in UP, especially after the Samajwadi Party (SP) came to power in 2012, have provided parties like the BJP an opportunity to polarise voters. On August 10, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) started a week-long awareness drive in western UP. RSS workers visited all the villages tying rakhi to Hindu men and women and pledging to protect them from Love Jihad. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has started organising special seminars where they brief Hindus about the danger from Love Jihad.

“We will be doing 300 seminars across several districts of Western UP,” says Sudarshan Chakra. The bypolls for 11 Assembly seats are scheduled in September and this would help the BJP in consolidating Hindu voters. Other parties like Congress and the SP are banking on consolidating Muslim votes.

Before the 2014 general elections, voters of western UP, largely Jats and Muslims, did not vote on communal lines. Both communities, being predominantly agriculturists, stood behind the region’s farmer leaders. In the late 70s, Choudhary Charan Singh, a Jat leader and father of Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) president Ajit Singh, managed to forge a strong alliance of Jat-Muslims in the region. In the eighties, another farmer leader, Mahendra Singh Tikait of Bhartiya Kisaan Union (BKU), became their leader and he turned the votes to the political party of his choice. Ajit Singh too tried to lead the two communities but after he forged an alliance with the BJP in 2001, his vote share in the region began to decline. In 2012 Assembly elections, the RLD could win only nine seats.

With the decline of Ajit Singh, Jat voters started looking towards BJP because Muslims were with the ruling SP. The Muzaffarnagar riots last year completely divided Hindu-Muslim voters in the area and Hindus came out in full support of the BJP. The most important aspect of the political transition was the Dalits of the region voting for the BJP. For the first time, the Jats and Dalits have come together after the riots (post the Shamli case, there were some incidents where Dalit girls were being harassed by Muslim boys and Jats stood up for Dalits): this combination was politically formidable. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), whose very existence is dependent on Dalit votes, also first witnessed an erosion of their votebank during the 2012 Assembly elections. In 2014, it was completely wiped out, not wining a single seat from the state. The bypolls are a litmus test for the new BJP president Amit Shah, and fear of Love Jihad will come in handy for the party to garner Hindu votes.

Most leaders from other political parties see Love Jihad as a propaganda war engineered by the BJP and likeminded non-political outfits. “If a Hindu girl marries a Muslim boy, they call it Love Jihad. But when a Hindu boy marries a Muslim girl, it’s a matter of pride. What kind of ideology is this?” questions Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh. “There is not an iota of doubt that BJP is fanning this spineless and concocted figment of imagination for political gains. On the other hand there are some Muslim extremist organisations who are exploiting it for their vested interests.”

Maulana Masood Madani, president of Tanzeem Abnaye Darul Uloom Deoband, also blames the RSS and VHP. “The recent statements by their leaders clearly show that they want to make India a Hindu Rashtra. If there are cases of Love Jihad then I demand that such cases be investigated by the judges of the High Court and the Supreme Court. Who are RSS and VHP to pass a judgment?” he says.

Madani also raises a different sociological point. According to him, poverty in villages and usage of mobile phones are two prime reasons for these unions across religions. “Poverty doesn’t see whether the person is Hindu or Muslim. Additionally, the mobile phones have completely destroyed the purdah system in both the communities. Boys and girls can remain in touch even without meeting each other, through a mobile phone,” he argues.

Some feel that Muslims have changed with the times, but that Hindus still take pride in controlling girls. “A lot of honour killings are reported from this region and it’s a completely Hindu phenomenon,” says Mufti Yade Ilahi Quasmi, general secretary, Tanzeem Abnaye Darul Uloom Deoband. “It shows that they have not moved with time.”

The Muslims in Sarawa village claim that the girl who made the charges was in love with a Muslim boy of another village, and that even her family was aware of it; they are communalising the incident to save their honour in the village. “Two years back a Hindu Tyagi boy married a Muslim girl, both from Sarawa. They even have kids now. But we never raised a flag as it is their individual choice,” says an elderly Muslim of Sarawa.

It is not that the issue of Love Jihad only affects rural areas or society’s lower strata. Tehseen Poonawala, a Congress sympathiser and one of the party’s prime time advocates on TV, was targeted on social media over his affair with a Hindu girl. “I constantly received threat messages on Twitter with the hashtag Love Jihad,” he says. “But I am not going to let them be successful in their vicious conspiracy.” Tehseen has registered a website and is collecting information about several Love Jihad cases that he thinks are false. The website will be launched on 2 October, in the presence of some eminent Hindu-Muslim couples.

Whether it is a conspiracy against Hindus or a social malady, what is evident is that Love Jihad is distorting the social fabric of western UP.