Love Jihadis: New book traverses West UP, hotbed of communal strife, to capture voices of the 'dispensable'

There’s no denying that the state of Uttar Pradesh remains a constant presence in news cycles in India. Most recently, it was over the decision to conduct the Ram Navami Mela in Ayodhya, despite advisories against large gatherings in view of the coronavirus outbreak. Over the years, there’s been constant flow of news resulting from the tensions between Hindus and Muslims — especially surrounding forced 'ghar-wapsi', a mass Hindu exodus from Kairana, and the infamous 'love jihad'. Former colleagues, journalist Mihir Srivastava and photojournalist Raul Irani, set out to investigate how much of the news was rumour, and how much of it was fact, twisted and propagated by the media. They documented their findings in Love Jihadis: An Open-minded Journey into the Heart of Western Uttar Pradesh (Westland).

The duo wanted to share the other side of the story, in order “to amplify the voices of people who fall under the broad category of ‘dispensable’, their lives merely a means to a certain end”. They wanted to do journalism minus the propaganda. On the way, they found that the reality on-ground is always different from what the media portrays, and people, justifiably, are suspicious of reporters.

Love Jihadis, unlike its title, doesn’t just focus on one issue. Instead, it is a mix of a travelogue through Western Uttar Pradesh, and a narrative of the issues that dominate the area, which includes the case of forced ghar-wapsi in Agra; the Hindu exodus from Kairana; an interview with Chetna Devi — head of the Meerut-based Akhand Hindustan Morcha, where she trains people to prepare for a ‘war on faith’; and a meeting with a gaurakshak in Mathura, besides a visit to Darul Uloom in Deoband.

 Love Jihadis: New book traverses West UP, hotbed of communal strife, to capture voices of the dispensable

Most poignant is the 'Love Jihad' case. A young Shallu falls in love with Kalim, a Muslim man. Her family disapproves and tries everything — including an incident of assault — to destroy the relationship. They lodge a FIR against Kalim and four others, who are accused of allegedly abducting and gang-raping her. One of the five was Sanauallah Khan, a man who didn’t even know the couple. He spent a year in jail and it destroyed his life, reputation and livelihood. Though Shallu has denied all charges of being allegedly gang-raped, Khan’s case continues. His story is a haunting testimony to how public perception and trial by media can ruin a person’s life.

Excerpts from an interview with Srivastava:

Is love jihad really nothing but a non-issue, created by staunch Hindus supported by the media? What is its basis?

I will just say that an inter-faith marriage here was projected as the case that epitomises 'love jihad'. The basis of love jihad to me is hate and fear. Contrary to it being an assertion of Hindu supremacy, it reflects a sense of fear, a threat. Chetna Devi is building an army of Hindu women and children against Muslims, for she loves to hate them, and fears the day they (Muslims in India) become a majority. She thinks Muslim men are ‘sensuous’ and very difficult for a ‘gullible’ Hindu girl to resist. This is not an assertion from a position of strength, to say the least.

I’m a Hindu, a practicing one. I believe in the philosophy of advaith, or non-dualism. I’m very secure about my belief and faith. And my faith teaches me to respect and allow others to practice their faith. Being fundamentalist in terms of following a religion doesn’t mean being communal. I think it was Gandhi who said that those who respect their own mother, cannot insult other’s mothers. The same applies to faith.

Shallu at her home in Sarawaha. At the time of the photograph, the ‘love jihad’ story was all over the news, and she was being held captive by her own family. Moreover, she had converted to Islam and adopted the name ‘Bushra’ to marry Kalim

Shallu at her home in Sarawaha. At the time of the photograph, the ‘love jihad’ story was all over the news, and she was being held captive by her own family. Moreover, she had converted to Islam and adopted the name ‘Bushra’ to marry Kalim

The book is your attempt to tell the truth, even if the views differed from yours. How difficult was it thus, to interview people like Chetna Devi who have such polarised views?

I feel the greatest crisis humanity faces is that we see things filtered through our myopic worldview. We think we know the answers, that’s what our biased mind tells us. What Raul and I have tried doing through this book is not to approach the issue and people with preconceived notions, and lug the burden of our biases. We were to keep a check on each other by our mere presence.

I don’t subscribe to an ideology. The world is far more complex to be explained by a certain point of view. In this complex world, no one is actually wrong or right, for it’s just an interpretation. And being liberal, one has to be open to what others have to say and try not to impose one’s own belief system. If we are militant about our views, then we are not liberals, whether we are a leftist or a rightist. Liberalism and tolerance go hand in hand. People should be allowed to speak their mind – it’s a safety valve. A known devil is a lesser devil. The problem starts when voices are scuttled and the radicals go underground.

Hundreds of cows at the gaushala managed by Sunil Singh in Mathura

Hundreds of cows at the gaushala managed by Sunil Singh in Mathura

In fact, we had great conversations with Chetna Devi. We told her that irrespective of whether we agree with her or not, we are here to understand her, and will give her an honest hearing and an adequate representation in the book. She was frank and candid because we were receptive to her views. And by doing that we understood the human side of a person like her. She has a violent streak; faith and the way she interprets it has given her a larger cause to unleash her own violent streak.

Tell us about the research involved in the book? How did you find the cases and decide which ones to pursue? Were people willing to share their side of the story?

One of the things we did so as not to cloud our minds with a plethora of information, is minimise the research. We wanted to make our own impressions by being there. And the cases we covered are the ones that hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons. We just collected a bunch of them, and started visiting people and places where the communal clashes took place. Few years had passed, people were in the process of reconciling their traumatic experiences, and were willing to tell their side of the story. They were more than willing to speak for they felt cheated in the way they were portrayed, vilified, demonised by the mainstream media. They are poor and rural people. Had they been of any influence, and knew their rights, had the resources to enforce their rights, like their rich urban counterparts, they’d have surely sued the media for defamation worth hundreds of crores. They were easy picks.

To me, one of the important functions of journalism is to give voice to the weak and marginalised, and when you do that you hear a different narrative, their narrative. People were willing to speak – knowing full well that another set of scribes had wronged them in the past – and were grateful we were there to hear their stories.

I say this with great responsibility, after hearing their narrative and examining the facts on the ground. I was mostly disillusioned by the people of my fraternity, not the politicians. There’s hardly any distinction between propaganda and journalism when it comes to a certain set of media organisations. They don’t reflect reality, but harp on their own agenda. They are in denial and the real people suffer.

Sanauallah at his home in Sarawaha

Sanauallah at his home in Sarawaha

Though the book is called Love Jihadis, it really is like a travelogue into western Uttar Pradesh, covering ghar-wapsi, religious institutions, and even gau-shalas. Was the intention to talk about places and events instead of focussing only on the love jihad issue?

Yes, it’s a travelogue by two disgruntled journalists, and only disgruntled journalists visit such places (in western Uttar Pradesh that had recently been in the news for communal issues). We wanted to profile the whole region and try to understand why most of the communal clashes have their origins here.

It’s a travelogue because it’s not detailed, but impressionist. A plain narrative of people, places and things anyone would encounter if they cared to visit these places. We were amazed to realise that despite the intense media attention due to communal flare-ups, many crucial facts still remain broadly unreported. Also, we had a great deal of fun while travelling through the dusty hinterland of western UP, eating out at dhabas, trying local cuisines. Pictures play an important part in any travelogue. They tell an irrefutable story and substantiate text. I felt we needed visual validation of all we have experienced. We wanted readers to be our co-travellers on this journey. And I am happy to say, despite the negativity, not all is lost, the composite culture is intact and fairly robust in this region. I’m hopeful that what is happening now will pass.

All photographs courtesy Raul Irani

Updated Date: Apr 01, 2020 19:08:54 IST



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