Published in 1993, Vikram Sethi’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ leisurely unspooled the tangled threads of communal tension and conservatism in post-independence India as many had done before – only it did that a little too well. Today, readers will not have to brave the novel’s 1,349 pages to understand the depth of India’s communal rot, they don’t even have to watch the novel’s Netflix adaptation – they can simply tune in to the local Indian news channels and experience the intolerance in real-time.
A kissing scene that took up a mere one minute in the show’s episode managed to deeply enrage Hindu nationalists, especially those belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The scene takes place between Lata, a Hindu girl, and her Muslim love interest, as they sit against the background of a Hindu temple.
“This has extremely objectionable content which hurts the sentiments of people of a particular religion,” said Narottam Mishra, the minister of home affairs in Madhya Pradesh.
“I have requested authorities to examine why, and with what intentions this program and this theme has been restarted on [streaming] platforms,” he added.
The six-part drama series, an adaption of Vikram Seth’s novel by the same name, had been long anticipated by Netflix viewers as a multifaceted, historically rich series. Film veteran Mira Nair’s painstaking direction is what brought the show most of its acclamation.
However, Gaurav Tiwari, a BJP youth leader, believes that the show promotes ‘Love Jihad’.
“Do not consider the tolerance of Hindus as their weakness, it is an insult not only to Madhya Pradesh but also to Lord Shiva and crores of Shiva devotees.” he tweeted, adding that he had already lodged an FIR on this matter.
Soon ‘#BoycottNetflix’ started trending in India, as many users took to Twitter to object to the new ‘anti-Hindu’ series. This controversy takes place under the context of BJP controlled Indian states claiming a sharp rise in ‘Love Jihad’ cases and their pledge to stem it via legal means.
The term ‘Love Jihad’ has been used principally by Hindu nationalists to refer to the alleged forced conversions of Hindu women by Muslim men through a facade of love to entrap them in marriages. Hindutva supporters firmly believe in this theory and scramble to label even consensual interfaith marriages as ‘Love jihad’, the main idea is that most vulnerable Hindu women, from low-income households, are coerced by men of Muslim faith into marriage, for the sole purpose of changing their religion.
The Economist, a leading international magazine, stated in an article that “Repeated police investigations have failed to find evidence of any organised plan of conversion. Reporters have repeatedly exposed claims of “love jihad” as at best fevered fantasies and at worst, deliberate election-time inventions.”
Similarly, In Karnatka, a state in southwest India, the Criminal Investigation Department reported to the public that it had found little to no evidence that a Love Jihad existed.
The Correspondent talked to New Delhi’s Medha Gupta, a former journalist and an editor in the publishing industry, about what this term entails and how it is being used as a dog whistle for religious and ethnic discrimination.
- What is the popular dialogue surrounding Love Jihad in India?
Gupta: “There are two sets of ideologies at play here. One, that pushes the conservative agenda and the other which constantly aims to fight it. As we witness the comeback of all sorts of nationalist forces across the world, India finds itself at crossroads where it struggles to preserve the idea of diversity and yet gives in to the rightist ideologies every time it hands over the mandate to those opposed to liberal views. One such issue has gained momentum with a recent advertisement by a jewelry brand that portrayed inter-faith marriages in a progressive light. Even though it had to be taken down by the brand under pressure, what it achieved was important. It brought forth the deep dichotomy of views that exists within India today. Love Jihad is a way to control not just the minority communities but also women at large. And the debate surrounding Love Jihad in India is here to stay and so will the polarized views on the issue.“
How much do you think this is about Hindu nationalistic politics than it is about actual concern over forced conversions?
Gupta: “It definitely is a way of tightening the noose around minorities. There are no two ways about that. What it very smartly aims to do is to use the old discourse on conversion to play on the insecurities of Hindus. The ruling party in India has not minced words while making it clear that they want to create a Hindu state where the majority religious community gets to be at the centre. The recent debate on Love Jihad is a way to systematically walk the talk which was part of BJP’s manifesto of placing nationalism at the centre of their agenda.”
Seetha Natesh, a freelance publishing professional from Delhi, believes ‘Love Jihad’ is used by nationalists to substantiate the claim that Hinduism is under attack. In conversation with The Correspondent, she said:
“Love Jihad is yet another way to propagate the idea that Hinduism is under threat when in fact it is quite the reverse under India’s ruling party. There have been many ways that non Hindus have been discriminated against in recent years–the ban on beef, the CAA and NRC, to name a few, and now love jihad has been added to the list. If we look at the states that are considering enforcing this, they’re all BJP-led states. So while it is bound to resonate with a certain kind of person, there will hopefully be as many who will assert that it is a ridiculous idea that impinges on constitutionally bestowed personal freedoms.”
“It’s the old British policy of Divide and Rule at play, isn’t it? It’s hard to see this law on Love Jihad as anything other than politics. It plays on the gullibility of some Hindus and their bias against a religious minority. But the BJP has a Hindus first agenda–there are quite a few ‘godmen’ in the party to–so it goes well with its identity. Again, it is election time, and the states talking about it are BJP-led ones,” she added.
Forced conversions are gravely legitimate practices that do occur in several parts of India as well as in its neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, Hindutva believers, who largely form the BJP, are using this rhetoric as a strategic movement against interfaith coupling in general.
Earlier, the Uttar Pradesh government passed a bill against ‘Love Jihad’, just days after the Allahabad High Court order proclaimed that the right to live with a person of their choice irrespective of religion was crucial to the right to life and personal liberty.
“To disregard the choice of a person who is of the age of majority would not only be antithetic to the freedom of choice of a grown-up individual but would also be a threat to the concept of unity in diversity”, the bench said.
Despite this, UP’s proposed ordinance entails newly converted people to inform the District Magistrate (DM) in case they intend to marry. Failure to do so will result in imprisonment from 6 months to 3 years and a fine of Rs.10,000.
Historically, banning interfaith or interracial marriages has been a step towards ethnic cleansing and marginalization, a seemingly negligible cog in the giant genocidal machine. Nazi Germany drafted the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, calling for anti-miscegenation and bans on interracial and interfaith marriages. The Third Reich studied US law to learn how to legally discriminate against the Jews, finding sustenance for its racism in the American legal system. In 1924, the United States enacted the Racial Integrity Act by prohibiting interracial marriage and classifying as “white” a person “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian”.
A Suitable Boy is set in the 1950’s but its cultural synchronicity with modern-day India, 70 years later, is uncanny, with the country rightly imagined by Vikram Seth, writing in the late 1990’s, in exactly these tones. But the BJP’s modus operandi transcends even fictional horrors in its subjugation of the Muslim community as a significant percentage of the population struggles to survive this tide of vigilantism.