Charu Gupta, Associate Professor of History at the University of Delhi.
Dr. Gupta is the author of Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims and the Hindu Public in Colonial India (co-published by Permanent Black, Delhi & Palgrave, New York, 2002) and Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia (Routledge, Delhi and London, 2008). In 2006, she was the Rama Watumull Distinguished Indian Scholar at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The Hindu Right seems to have found a new agenda to arouse passions through the alleged ‘love jihad’ movement, supposed to have been launched by Muslim fundamentalists in India around 2009, to convert Hindu and Christian women through trickery. It is ironic that there is an uncanny resemblance of the issue and its language with similar ‘abduction’ and conversion campaigns launched by the Arya Samaj and other Hindu revivalist bodies in the 1920s and 1930s in north India, to draw sharper lines between Hindus and Muslims. From a historical perspective, the falseness of the Hindu Right’s fears appears more starkly.
In the 1920s, militant Hindu assertion reached new heights. There were unprecedented communal clashes in Uttar Pradesh. What is significant for the present context is that in this period Hindu woman’s body became a marker to sharpen communal boundaries in ways more aggressive than before. The period witnessed a flurry of orchestrated propaganda campaigns, and popular inflammatory and demagogic appeals by a section of Hindu publicists and the Arya Samaj against ‘abductions’ and conversions of Hindu women by Muslim goondas [hoodlums], ranging from allegations of rape, abduction and elopement, to luring, conversion, love, and forced marriages. Drawing on diverse sources like newspapers, pamphlets, meetings, handbills, posters, novels, myths, rumours and gossip, the campaign was able to operate in a public domain, and to monopolise the field of everyday representation. Tracts with provocative titles appeared. One was called Hindu Auraton ki Loot [The Abduction/Theft of Hindu Women], which denounced Muslim propaganda for proselytising female preys. Yet another was named Hindu Striyon ki Loot ke Karan [Reasons for the Abduction of Hindu Women], which was an Arya Samajist tract, showing how to save ‘our’ ladies from becoming Muslim. The converted woman was a potential site of outrage of the family order and religious sentiment.
In the unfolding of the tales in the 1920s and in 2009-10, there are certain common strains. I will highlight just a few. In both campaigns, one of the arguments given by Hindu groups has been that the conversions of Hindu women are linked with augmenting the number of Muslims. A tract, published in 1924 from Kanpur and titled Humara Bhishan Haas dwelt on the catastrophic decline of Hindus due to increasing conversions of Hindu women to Islam. It claimed that a number of Aryan women were entering the homes of yavanas and mlecchas (terms used for Muslims in such writings), reading nikah with them, producing gaubhakshak children, and increasing Muslim numbers. Pro-Hindu organisations in 2009 too have claimed that forced conversions of Hindu women in the name of love are part of an international conspiracy to increase Muslim population. The issues at stake here are not only to construct a picture of a numerical threat from Muslims but also to lament the supposed decline in the number of Hindus and mourn the potential loss of child-bearing Hindu wombs.
Both the campaigns construct an image of the Muslim male as aggressive, and broadcast a series of repetitive motifs, creating a common ‘enemy’ Other. Whether it is 1920 or 2009, images of passive, victimised Hindu women at the hand of inscrutable Muslims abound, and any possibility of them exercising their legitimate right to love and to choice is ignored. In June 1924 in Meerut, handbills and meetings claimed that various Hindu women were being lured and their pure bodies being violated by lustful and sexually charged Muslim men. The present campaign too, while focusing its anger on the Muslims, derives its emotional impact from the victim. It is impossible for Hindu groups to conceive that Hindu women can voluntarily elope or convert. Thus, every romance, love, elopement and marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man is rewritten by Hindu organisations as forcible conversion. It is also assumed that the mere act of marrying and staying with a Muslim ensures that the woman is leading an unhappy and dreadful life. Behind it are also anxieties about possible relations between Hindu women and Muslim men. The fears of elopements and conversions by some Hindu women shows the need felt not so much to protect, but to discipline them.
Often, reckless generalisations are made, with rumours adding spice. A pamphlet released by the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad during the present campaign, and distributed in Jawaharlal Nehru University, claims that 4,000 girls have been converted until now. Another pamphlet distributed by the Hindu Janjagruthi Samiti, Karnataka, states the number to be 30,000 within a year!
The examples deployed in both periods have often been imagined, and there is sometimes evidence to prove the depth of fallacy involved. For example, in April 1927, Hindus spread a rumour in Muzaffarnagar that a Hindu girl had been forcibly converted to Islam and was being married to a Muhammadan. They proceeded in crowds to inspect the alleged pervert and found that the girl had always been a Muslim. At Kanpur in 1939, a Hindu youth accused Muslim volunteers of kidnapping Hindu women. This led to a search of the Muslim League office, which yielded no trace of them. And in June 2009, when Anitha of Bantwal taluk in Karnataka went missing, several Sangh Parivar organisations claimed that she was forcibly converted to Islam by a Pakistan-backed, professional ‘jihadist lover,’ and a protest meeting held on 4 October. However, on 21 October 2009, a serial killer, Mohan Kumar, on his arrest confessed that he had poisoned Anitha to death.
Representation, performance, and events have fed into each other creating such ideologies about abductions, and conversions. Hate speech is repeatable speech, drawing its strength from stereotypes. Here too, conversions of Hindu women are represented as a general phenomenon. Different events are made to appear to follow a similar pattern – a narrative of luring by a Muslim male in the name of love, and of Hindu female victimhood. In repetition appears its strength. It becomes a primary source of communal power: its ability to renew itself through reiteration, and its authority as supposed truth.
Though there are continuities between the two campaigns, there are also new dimensions to the love-jihad issue. In the wake of terrorist threats, and images of Muslim fundamentalism, additional anxieties have been created of a foreign hand in the conversions. Rumors of the Muslim youth receiving funds from abroad to lure Hindu women abound. It appears that when confronted with the phenomenon of conversion from Hinduism to Islam, especially by Hindu women, certain kinds of Hindus lose their logical faculties. The politics of cultural virginity is inevitably shadowed by a myth of innocence, combined with rants about violation, invasion, seduction, and rape.
In spite of this hate campaign, the few actual incidents of inter-religious marriages illuminate certain ruptures in the Hindu logic. These cases belie the ideal of the Hindu family, and draw attention to the woman’s needs and desires. The women here are perhaps ‘using’ the instruments of conversion and elopement as a mode of coping with an oppressive social order, and within limits, transgressing it. Such alliances suggest that sometimes identities are recast to disrupt the logic of communal boundaries. The actions of these women provide moments of vulnerability in the dominant discourse, and upset the relentless communal polarisation. Elopements and conversions hint at love and romance. They posit a different world and messy complexities of reality, and inchoate ways of life. Women, who are often perceived as victims by the Hindu communalists, may actually be actors and subjects in their own right by choosing elopements and conversions.
A slightly longer version of the piece appeared as “Hindu Women, Muslim Men: Love Jihad and Conversions.” Economic and Political Weekly 44, 51: 13-15.