Public discourse surrounding 'love jihad' misses one crucial element: Criminalisation of Muslim men
We are falling into the collective trap of a psycho-political understanding where the only Muslim worthy of being 'asked' to be 'saved' has to be the one who fits the mould of a stereotypical Indian Muslim, who is distanced from the faith and does not claim their religious identity
The law against so-called 'love jihad' — formally known as the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion Bill, 2020 — has come into effect in Uttar Pradesh. On paper, it has been put forward as a law that would nullify marriages if they are found to be processed through forced religious conversion. In the recent past, two BJP-ruled states, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, have already brought forth similar laws.
After the Uttar Pradesh government's proposal to table such a law, the home ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka have decided to do the same in their respective states. The proposed legislation and the rhetoric of the ministers pushing it is in the same vein and reeks of anti-Muslim sentiment. This is especially so in a context where an ostensibly anti-Muslim national political party has been in power for two terms. The party's recent attacks against the Muslim community with the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the series of arrests and witch-hunts that followed in the aftermath are evidence of its outlook for the future of India.
This proposed law has stirred opinion across the political spectrum with many Opposition leaders condemning it. There are two central arguments in their opposition to the law. The first is the protection of 'personal freedom' of the individuals as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. It centres on the choice to choose, love and/or marry. The other comes in for safeguarding the 'agency of women'. Although, non-BJP political parties have been regular in the opposition of the proposed law with these two arguments, it is time to address the elephant in the room.
Both of these defences are reductive and ignore the critical issue at hand: The criminalisation of Muslim men. With the State hounding Muslim men for almost anything and everything, the concerning issue at this point should be to safeguard their very survival. Ironically, all rationales of love and the supposedly liberating choice of interfaith marriages fall flat if one party to the clause is running to save from one prejudiced State institution to another to save their lives.
The issue is being oversimplified with a deviation and is robustly thrust over the understanding of how the law would operate. The Left organisations, All India Progressive Women Association (AIPWA) and the All India Students Association (AISA) took up 'Love Azad' — a campaign against the lies of 'love jihad' as a national campaign. On the surface, it comes across as a sincere effort, much like the official name of the 'love jihad' law. With this take, the Left has breathed life into a deliberate lie created by its Opposition in order to criminalise Muslim men.
There are various problematic elements that can be easily picked up from the notion of 'love jihad'. But it takes just a glance to capture the essence of how it effortlessly demonises the language associated with the Muslim community.
'Jihad' has been neologised internationally as hateful propaganda against the Muslim community. With no effort to address its theological context, its usage in the popular culture is purposefully misleading. To create an alternative to the word as a counter against itself is reinstating the binary of good and bad; it takes no time to start labelling the members of the Muslim community along these lines. Cultural hegemony has an overarching power, paying no heed to the amalgamation of language and culture and the crucial role it plays in the socio-political arena.
Moving to the question of the agency of women, this one is an insincere and partial approach. In the entire argument, the position of Muslim women is completely missing. If one were to be honest with the reality playing out, it is clear to see that this law corners Muslim women in particular. With this law criminalising Muslim men, the women of the community are pushed further away with deep socio-political and economic disadvantages. The State has so far failed to push the Muslim community up the steps of development and on the contrary, has played against them.
The criminalisation of Muslim men under this law would be concentrated on the economically weaker and marginalised sections of the community. Here, more often than not, the male member(s) of the family are the sole breadwinners. Framing the men of the family (even if the potential of justice awaits at some point in future) leaves Muslim women without any source of income, at the very least.
In any case, a rampant Islamophobic gaze regularly brings their decision to abide by their faith into question. This is closely linked with another critical aspect: The politics of revenge on Muslim women as a site of power executed by the men of the majority. The binary of 'us' and 'them' is built in with the historical lie of 'power-yielding majority subjected to the tyranny of this 'other': Muslims'. It creates a plot for seeking opportunistic vengeance, if Hindu women have been deceived by Muslim men, the women of the latter's community immediately become the end of their retributive justice.
When the agency of women and her choice to marry and live is being fought for in this context, why is it so difficult to stand up for the healthy survival of Muslim women — a minority within a minority? What appears at the surface is a progressive lens fogged by an elite outlook where the complex hierarchy of religion, gender, political leverage, social status and public opinion is deliberately simplified to ignore the real question.
It is interesting to note how the myopic lens of progressive sections has showcased strict adherence to presenting Muslim men as the oppressor inside their community and their supposed nemesis, while the right-wing holds Muslim men accountable for the oppression outside the community.
At such a socio-political crossroads, how are we supposed to find a solution when the problem at hand is not even being acknowledged and in fact, being ignored? Not one of the rational and emotional arguments presented by stakeholders in a democracy has been at the forefront on the issue of criminalisation of Muslims, which actually is the idea central to this bizarre law. In a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is unprecedented, everything from political power-wielding institutions to the mob of the majority and the physical manifestation of this antipathy has been unfortunately quite visible; the invisibilisation of this aspect is moral bankruptcy at its peak.
'Love jihad' or any other tactic for criminalising Muslim men lies on the premise of presenting them as mere 'bodies', devoid of any value to be considered human — as an equal in the eyes of the otherwise majority. This unfortunate and brazen attempt is executed to separate the co-existing or the very quintessential quality of being a Muslim and a human together into two separate categories. The very idea of being a Muslim is quintessentially and even theologically ingrained in being a human. But with this categorisation, Muslim men are forced to choose to either be a Muslim or a human and are not allowed to exist in both of these categories collectively at all.
The idea further presents Muslim men as machinery employed by this 'other' (their religious identity) as a threat to the State and therefore, to its people. Who are the people of this State now? This State has underpinnings to this unrestrained mythical narrative of a 'Hindu Rashtra'. This depiction smoothly translates into filtering Muslim bodies away from the 'living', what is left is profane and undesired for (and by) the collective conscience of this nation.
We are falling into the collective trap of a psycho-political understanding where the only Muslim worthy of being 'asked' to be 'saved' has to be the one who fits the mould of a stereotypical Indian Muslim, who is distanced from the faith and does not claim their religious identity. Who they should marry, how they should act, how they should speak, what they should eat, what they should wear, and how they should question (if at all 'allowed' to); all of these questions are being regulated under one homogenous category. This is reiterated again and again in the rhetoric of mainstream political parties and in the 'saved' cases of the Muslim community.
Eventually, the crowd accepts it, not as a possible acceptable variation amongst the diverse nature of Muslim identity but as the Muslim identity. Soon, the maybe becomes the 'ought to be' and then, 'should be', and from there, there is no coming back for the Indian Muslims if they don't want to live as second-class citizens in this country.
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