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Civil rights activists demonstrate against proposed state laws in India that would ban religious conversion for the purpose of marriage without state authorization, in Bangalore, India, on Dec. 1, 2020.

MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images

A new law to curb interfaith marriages has triggered outrage and arrests in India’s most populous state.

At the end of November, Uttar Pradesh became the first state to criminalize religious conversion for the purpose of marriage, or as a result of force or enticement. At least four other states, all ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, are in the process of creating similar laws.

It’s being framed by political and religious leaders as a way to counteract what they call “love jihad” – a conspiracy theory that Muslims are luring women of other faiths, particularly Hindu, into marriage in order to convert them to Islam.

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The campaign is fuelled by the belief held by Hindu hard-liners that Muslims seek control of the country. Hindus comprise nearly 80 per cent of the population in India, while Muslims stand at 14.2 per cent.

Marriages between men and women of different faiths are fairly rare in India. A study based on the 2005-2006 National Family Health Survey found 2.1 per cent marriages were interreligious.

Within hours of the new law coming into effect, it was enforced: a Muslim man was arrested from a Bareilly village, followed by reports of fresh arrests everyday. The law requires religious conversion for the purpose of marriage be approved in advance by a district magistrate. Conversion that is deemed unlawful is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and annulment of the marriage.

“‘Love jihad’ is a bogey to add to the ongoing anti-Muslim sentiment,” said women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes. “It has also been used by Christians, particularly in the state of Kerala, to claim thousands of Christian women were being converted to Islam. The whole thing is anti-women, supported by an archaic notion that women don’t know what they are doing and that they need fundamentalists to protect them.”

In the run up to the new legislation last month, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is also a Hindu monk, had declared during a rally that his government was working to stop “love jihad in a firm way” and warned men who “hide their names and identities and play with the honour of daughters and sisters.” The law is the latest in a string of events that have brought the spectre of this conspiracy theory from the fringes to mainstream, from vigilantes to lawmakers.

In October, a jewellery brand, Tanishq, withdrew a video advertisement depicting a marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man after a backlash from Hindu groups. In November, Netflix officials were charged by police in the state of Madhya Pradesh for a scene in the series A Suitable Boy that allegedly offended religious sentiments by showing a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy kissing on temple grounds.

The implications of the fresh wave of Hindu religiosity are manifold. Activist Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak, a non-profit that supports interfaith couples, worries the law will be misused to further marginalize minority communities. “It will be manipulated to harass interfaith couples,” he said.

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The new law violates many rights and takes away privacy, choice and autonomy, said gender and law researcher, Surbhi Karwa. “The actual text of the law is vicious, with provisions that can threaten the life of interfaith couples.”

Requiring notice before and after conversion, and the provisions for police inquiry can be used to trace and target interfaith couples, she said. Some conversions are undertaken to avoid the cumbersome procedure under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, which allows interfaith couples to marry without converting. Some are motivated to convert to avoid social stigma attached with interfaith marriages.

“Though we already have a law against forceful conversion, the new anti-conversion law is linked to conversion done in order to marry,” Ms. Karwa said. “There is a presumption of criminality and the severity of offence is very high.”

The law has spurred widespread debate and protests by civil-rights groups across the country. Two weeks ago, many women’s organizations in the southern city of Bengaluru came together to demand its repeal. “When we realized the Karnataka government wants to pass a ‘love jihad’ law, we decided to dissent. It is absolutely unconstitutional. It assumes criminality of the Muslim community while paternalizing women,” said advocate Shilpa Prasad, one of the participants of the protest.

The new ordinance should not stand the scrutiny of law in court, as it takes away several constitutional rights, said Ms. Karwa. It discriminates against citizens on grounds of religion, violates the right to personal liberty, while stereotyping women, a clear violation of equality before the law, she said.

In a landmark case in 2018, the Supreme Court of India struck down meddling by the state in an individual’s choice when it restored the interfaith marriage of Hadiya and Shafin Jehan, citing the constitution’s guarantee to personal liberty that had previously been annulled by a high court. The courts also have, in the past, granted protection to intercaste and interfaith couples.

Meanwhile, just days after the new law was passed, Mr. Iqbal observed an increasing number of interfaith couples turning to the Special Marriage Act to tie the knot without conversion, instead of opting for a religious ceremony as previously planned. There have been calls to make the conditions under this act – such as a one-month notice before the civil ceremony – less cumbersome.

“It’s likely there will be a drop in interfaith marriages, because people are scared,” said Ms. Agnes, the lawyer.

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