Love jihad laws risk security of inter-faith couples as few states comply with SC's safe house directive

Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak, a Delhi-based group that has helped 1,300 couples since 2012, says that SMA will be more helpful for couples if the provision of 30-days prior notice is removed

Jyoti Punwani February 13, 2021 12:05:40 IST
Love jihad laws risk security of inter-faith couples as few states comply with SC's safe house directive

A couple participating in Dhanak's presser about challenges that inter-faith couples face.

It was only a virtual press conference, but it encapsulated both the venom and the defiant hope that characterise the world of inter-faith couples today.

As half-a-dozen inter-faith couples opened up about their experiences at a Zoom meet on Friday, two voices interrupted them. The first, belonging to Dr Waleed Mallik, warned a couple from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh that he would get them locked up under the "love jihad" laws passed in these two states. The second, Mithila Thakur, spewing expletives, said he had taken down the names of every couple present at the meet.

Mallik also warned Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak of Humanity, a Delhi-based organisation that has helped 1,300 inter-faith and inter-caste couples since 2012, to stop doing this work and helping "ka****" (expletive used for circumcised men, ie Muslims). A strange threat to emanate from a man carrying a Muslim name!

The virtual press conference had been organised by Dhanak; the couples who addressed it had been helped by the organisation.

Iqbal just laughed in response to Mallik’s threat. But the counter to these threatening voices came from the couples themselves at the end of the meet.

Asked if social pressure was more of an obstacle than parental pressure, Anisha Khokhar from Gujarat replied: "Society does matter. But I want to say here that as an inter-faith couple, we will build a new society."

"Our parents have to live in society. But we too have our own society. What is society but a set of people you move around with? If parents feel their image is important, we too feel our image means something in our samaaj," added Ayaan from Bengaluru.

Ayaan married Shaili a year ago under the Special Marriage Act in Bengaluru, where both had been working since 2015. Their parents weren’t happy, but didn’t create any problems. However, Ayaan admitted that an unfortunate distance had come up between them and their parents since the wedding.

Till states stepped in with laws preventing inter-faith marriages, the bond with parents was the main point of tension for youngsters wanting to exercise their right to choose their own partners. Though this bond is said to be specially strong for daughters, Simran from Shahjahanpur broke this stereotype.

Talking about organisations that thwart  inter-faith marriages in the name of religion, Simran, who fled to Delhi with Shamim three weeks after UP’s "love jihad" law was passed,  said the only aim of such organisations  was not protection of religion but crushing love. "Love gets consumed by the flames of the volcano unleashed by these organisations, specially in the girl’s family," she said.

"This makes girls go back to their parents out of fear. I want to tell these girls not to do so.  Ma baap to phir bhi mil jaayengey, lekin pyar phir nahin mil sakega.’’ (Your parents will be reconciled sooner or later, but you won’t find your love again.)

Can laws shake such passionate commitment? These voices were from small towns, not big metros; these youngsters belonged to average families, described by Shamim as those "without support and connections’."

Shweta Jain (name changed) recalled asserting repeatedly that she had married a Muslim of her own free will, when their marriage created a furore in MP.  "The Bajrang Dal refused to listen to me, they just went on taking out rallies demanding that 'their girl' be returned to them. Even the police did not tell them that I had given them a statement to that effect. The local media also said I had been deceived into the marriage. Even though my husband had converted to Hinduism, the Dal forced Muslims in my locality to vacate their shops."

The couple finally came to Delhi to register their marriage under the Special Marriage Act.

None of these couples wanted to convert or be converted. But the difficulties thrown up by the provisions of the Special Marriage Act, or, sometimes, by the officials entrusted with implementing the Act,  had forced some of them to hurriedly have a religious ceremony, or flee their State.

Marriage under the SMA requires a month’s notice, and inter-faith couples find it too risky to spend that much time in their hometowns. For instance, though Anisha and Shirish Solanki wanted to marry under the Special Marriage Act, they were forced to flee Vadodara after the stamp paper vendor saw her name on the affidavit required under the Act, and informed her father. They are now in Delhi.

Dhanak is the magnet that attracts these couples to Delhi. The organisation has managed to get the Delhi government to follow the Supreme Court’s 2018 directive that every district must have a "safe house" for such couples. Currently, a two-room flat in government quarters has been allotted as a safe house, where two couples can live.  Dhanak also houses couples in their own office, but Iqbal said that there is no security there. "Just last week the police shifted a couple to a government dormitory, saying it was no longer safe for them to stay with us."

Iqbal feels once the requirement of a month's notice is done away with, half the risks associated with getting married under the Special Marriage Act will vanish. But the Centre has told the Delhi High Court such a notice was necessary. It was responding to a petition filed by Nida Rehman against Secs 6 and 7 of the Special Marriage Act, which require issuance of a public notice inviting objections to the marriage within a month's time.

Last month, the Allahabad High Court ruled that publishing such a notice and inviting objections from the public were no longer mandatory under the Special Marriage Act. The parties could specifically ask for such a notice to be published or not.

The second safeguard that Iqbal stresses are safe houses in every district, where inter-faith couples can wait out the month's notice period. Apart from Delhi, such safe houses exist in Haryana and Punjab.

Since the passing of the love jihad law in UP, distress letters to Dhanak have increased, specially from UP and MP, from inter-faith couples who do not want to convert. Once these couples come to Delhi, Dhanak has to get them to inform their families as well as the police in their hometown that they have left of their own accord. They also need to file an application before the Delhi Police to the same effect, and apply for protection from the court till they can either marry under the SMA or get their marriage registered under it.

Yet, Azhar (name changed) complained that despite having done all this, his family in UP was being harassed by the police and his uncle had been beaten up at the police station there.

State governments which pass laws against inter-faith marriages are hardly likely to provide safe houses for inter-faith couples. Even in non-BJP ruled states, how safe will such houses be given the attitude of the police and the media?

Ultimately, it is the couples’ courage that will have to see them through. "Marriage without conversion is a marriage of equals. You have already started your relationship on the basis of equality by transcending the boundaries of faith and caste that society and your families impose on you. Now do not compromise by converting and regressing into those boundaries only to please your parents. Don’t let your marriage become a marriage of unequals," was Iqbal’s advice to  the couples.

Dhanak plans to celebrate Valentine’s Day as it does every year  with inter-faith couples.

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