- South Asian Americans in interreligious marriages narrate their personal histories and reflect on the politicization and communalization of personal relationships.
Interfaith and inter-caste marriages have long been frowned upon in conservative Indian families, but in recent years, the conversation around such unions has
become even more fractious. And most scorn is reserved for alliances involving Hindu women and Muslim men.
Particularly with the recent furor over a Hindu girl kissing a Muslim boy, within a temple no less, in the Mira Nair BBC series, “The Suitable Boy,” the feathers of ‘love jihad’ conspiracy theorists in India have been ruffled.
Just how deep the chasm was brought into sharp focus recently when popular jewelry brand Tanishq withdrew an advertisement featuring an interfaith couple after a right-wing backlash on social media. The ad showed a baby shower organized for a Hindu mum-to-be by her Muslim in-laws. It was meant to celebrate the concept of “unity in diversity,” but it ended up doing the exact opposite — it laid bare the fissures that exist in Indian society.
Radical Hindu groups said the ad promoted ‘love jihad’ — an Islamophobic term that implies Muslim men prey on Hindu women to seduce them and marry them with the sole purpose of converting them to Islam. Social media trolls led calls to boycott the brand, taking it to the top of Twitter trends. The company said in a statement that it withdrew the ad keeping in mind the safety of its employees.
Recently, police in India have rounded up Muslim men and disrupted interfaith marriage ceremonies under new laws prohibiting the so-called ‘love jihad.’ In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, police have begun cracking down on marriages between Muslims and Hindus and have arrested at least 10 Muslim men under a law that prohibits forced religious conversions.
The theory has gained so much traction in India under the right wing ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that it has been used to justify legislation enacted in Uttar Pradesh. At least four BJP-ruled states have announced plans to introduce legislation to curb this “social evil.”
History of ‘Love Jihad’
‘Love jihad’ is a Hindu rightwing conspiracy theory claiming that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriage in order to force their conversion to Islam so as to (a) increase the Muslim percentage in India’s population and (b) bring terrorists to birth.
Developed as long back as the 1920s, ‘love jihad’ is an open violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private.”
It is not at all unthinkable that people would organize a racket for ensnaring women. But it is unthinkable that a giant scale ‘love jihad’ racket has been running in India for years, eluding not merely the families involved but also the country’s huge, talented and suspicious police forces. It is also hard to accept that such a racket has persuaded a large number of poor Muslim males to capture and convert unsuspecting Hindu women for the sake of census figures, and for producing terrorists.
The term ‘love jihad’ first called “Romeo jihad,” gained traction in 2009, when communalist paranoia seized the already-tense state of Kerala. It was originally propagated by Catholic leaders worried about Christian girls getting seduced out of the faith. The idea spread when a website belonging to the Hindutva organization Hindu Janajagruti Samiti claimed that a Muslim youth organization was launching a mass campaign to trick Hindu women into becoming Muslim wives. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council claimed that 4,500 girls in Kerala had been forcibly converted, while the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti claimed 30,000. The National Investigative Agency (NIA), which initially encouraged the theory, eventually closed the probe in 2018, after finding no evidence.
The most famous case promoted by the NIA’s investigation was that of Hadiya, a young woman who converted to Islam and then married a Muslim man. After her father filed a ‘love jihad’ complaint, Kerala’s High Court annulled Hadiya’s marriage, returning her to her father’s custody despite her being 24 years old. The NIA, similarly, citing the case as an instance of “psychological kidnapping,” despite Hadiya’s insistence that the choice to convert and marry was made without coercion of any kind. The Supreme Court eventually stepped in, freeing Hadiya from her father’s custody and restoring her marriage.
Other ‘love jihad’ cases have been largely similar: the complainant is usually the parents, and the alleged victim usually a Hindu woman who insists that the marriage is consensual. Hindus, however, have not been the only people worried about ‘love jihad’ — some Sikhs and Christians also worry about Muslim men stealing women away from their communities. Most news organizations dismiss ‘love jihad’ as a conspiracy theory, while others propagate it by finding one-off cases of exploitative interfaith marriages or radicalization, often using anonymous sources. But there is little evidence to suggest an organized campaign to convert Hindu women. The only Indian conspiracy to mass convert women has been launched by a Hindutva group, which announced that it would marry 2,100 Muslim women to Hindu men in a ‘reverse-love jihad.’
Though the central government admitted in February it had no official records of any incidents of the practice, the theory has gained so much traction that it has been used to justify legislation enacted in Uttar Pradesh. It is now proposed in four other BJP- controlled Indian states.
Chicago-based Amrita Poddar (name changed on request), director of Technology Operations, met her spouse while at university, where most love-stories seem to blossom. Born and raised in Baroda, Gujarat, Poddar decided to take up computer science engineering for her undergraduate degree in a college in Vidyanagar, a small town in the state. She fell in love and against some family opposition followed her heart and married her husband, who is Muslim.
Speaking about ‘love jihad,’ Poddar emphatically says, “I absolutely do not believe in this concept. I believe that because India is so highly populated and diverse, not only in terms of religion, but in terms of class, caste, wealth, etc.,” the idea got popularity “because people have too much time on their hands. People don’t know what to do and so get influenced by these political agendas.” She adds that “people who get influenced by these ideas are less educated and they don’t see the world like we do. And in India, everyone wants to butt into each other’s lives, which makes it easy for these ideas to get rooted into the fabric of society.” She admits that she knows families where a Hindu woman wanted to convert, as she felt “the religion gave her the right path. That’s okay too, because it was her choice.”
Reminiscing about her relationship, Poddar talks about how she met her husband, Nausher Khan (name changed), in college and how they became friends. Despite both being from Baroda, they met in Vijaynagar, “a student-centered town, full of colleges.” After a classmate introduced the two in Poddar’s second year of college, they started as friends. “We had a lot in common — same town, we went home on weekends, both studying engineering – and it wasn’t until third year that we began to realize this relationship was special,” she says. The relationship grew away from prying eyes, but the couple, aware of the religious differences, were in no rush to disclose the affair to the respective parents. I think Nausher’s parents had a hunch, but I did not give my mom any indication,” she says.
After graduating, they both got jobs in the same city till in 1999, when Khan got an opportunity to come to the U.S. through a family friend. The relationship transitioned to a long distance one — surviving on annual home visits, emails and telephone calls. And then matters came to a head when Poddar’s parents started looking for an arranged marriage for her.
Born into a Sindhi home, Poddar says her parents were not very conservative, but when told them about Nausher, “they had misgivings. It was not the best news I gave them. They brought up the fact that it was an inter-religion marriage and the fact that there’s so much taboo around a Hindu-Muslim union.”
But parents acquiesced and the families met and the rest, as they say is, history. “My father-in-law is a professor of Hindi at a university, a fact that helped soften the blow for my family,” Poddar says. “Thankfully, both sides decided on a small ceremony. And although, I did have a small, traditional Muslim nikah (wedding), by and large our families were okay with the match.”
Poddar does stop here to point out that that doesn’t mean there were no nay-sayers. “Some relatives for sure were not happy with it.” It was the time when there were “a lot of Shiv Sena issues going on in Bombay itself,” she recalls. “And there was a fear that it could spill over to Gujarat. We wondered if we should keep it quiet in case these fundamentalists found out. So that’s why we kept the engagement and wedding small.”
As to the very controversial question of conversion, at the root of the idea of ‘love jihad,” Poddar says, “In a nikah, you have to officially sign a paper that states you understand you are marrying a Muslim and renounce your previous religion.” However, she is quick to point out that she is not a practicing Muslim.
Poddar, who has a 13-year-old daughter, allows her to explore both religions. “My daughter calls herself a Muslim, but at the same time, she knows nothing much about the religion,” she says. The family celebrates Eid. “We don’t go to a mosque regularly, although my husband does. He goes, prays and that’s the end or extent of the religion we practice. But at the same time, we celebrate Diwali at home too. My daughter understands and respects that we both are from different religions. She is a ‘Gen Zer’ and so her faith in terms of religion or God has been left open by us. She will have the option and freedom to follow the religion that she wants to.”
In a similar story, Anu Menon (name changed on request), who is horrified at the atrocity being meted out to couples in the name of ‘love jihad’ in India, lives in Chicago and works in retail. Menon met her husband, Ajaiz (name changed too), at university in Texas. “I happened to actually meet him at a random party thrown by a friend,” she says, adding with a laugh, “We got talking and found we had a similar taste in music. There was a band playing and I was the only crazy girl enjoying it and so was he.” As the friendship grew and developed Menon realized that they had “common connections in our friend and family circle.”
For the Mumbai-born Menon, it wasn’t easy breaking the news to her parents. “So I asked them to first meet him and then we could talk about the big picture issues. Menon’s parents still reside in Mumbai. Once Menon’s parents met Ajaiz, their concerns slowly began to fade away.
With a laugh, Menon says it was her grandparents, from both sides who were supportive. “That helped,” she says. “They just told me to go into this with my eyes open.” However, Menon says her in-laws, who live in Delhi had more reservations. It took Menon more than a decade “to be accepted fully.” Today, the families are close and all is well. An inter-faith household, Menon is raising her daughter in both religions. “That’s the beauty of it. You get to experience both Eid and Diwali and enjoy it.” Menon who believes “love conquers all”, has not converted to the Islamic faith, nor has she changed her name. “It wasn’t asked of me.” She is shocked at the treatment being meted out to couples under the guise of ‘love jihad.’ “You (India) call yourself a democracy,” she chides adding, “and you (BJP) make statements that are so unconstitutional, it’s not just disappointing, it’s alarming! I didn’t grow up in bubble and I knew the interfaith issues. But this is taking away out freedom of expression, religious faith and choice. Frankly, who I marry, is no one’s business but mine. No one has the right to tell me who I should marry!”
With great finality, Menon says, “India has to make a choice right now as to whether it should call itself a democracy or a dictatorship.”
Conversion of Convenience
Fifty-two-year-old Sarah, (last name withheld), a Pakistani American, an engineer who recently turned to the non-profit sector, found herself in an arranged marriage to a Pakistani, about 27 years ago, when she came to the U.S. “That did not work out for me,” she says with an air of finality. “He was someone from my faith, my parents chose for me, without my knowledge or permission.”
Sarah adds, “When that fell through, I found myself in a very rebellious place. And I decided not to return to Pakistan and would choose my own partner and destiny.”
Resolved to meet people outside her faith, Sarah says meeting her second husband was “not accidental, but a conscious choice”. Between her first and second marriage, Sarah dated a Hindu man, which didn’t work due to the “huge religious differences and most of their families were not on board. And I realized that was more of an issue for him than me and that ended.”
Sarah then met and married, Brian (name changed) who was raised in a strict Catholic home. “He did convert to Islam on paper, but he never really embraced it.” Sarah says Brian only did that to be able to claim that he met my parents’ expectations that I marry a Muslim. Sarah does point out that although she never thought of asking him to convert, when Brian seemed amenable to do that, she didn’t object “because I wanted to get married, but it was not a conscious, calculated decision”, adding, “I went along with the conversion for marriage not Islam or any idea of ‘love jihad’.”
She also points out that “I know that although on paper he converted, he never really intended to embrace Islam in practice.”
Citing examples of the differences in their faiths that caused issues in the marriage Sarah says, “I was expected to make Christmas wonderful for everybody, but I never got a Christmas gift because I wasn’t Christian!”
Now divorced, the two share two the raising of their two children and Sarah is now once again married to a Pakistani gentleman. “My current husband and I are practicing Muslims, but my children are somewhere in between as they shuttle between my home and their dad’s home which has reverted to being a Catholic home.’
Academic and former journalist SSR (initials used on request), in the U.S. for little over two decades, met her pagan husband when he “was a penniless musician but extremely handsome,” she laughs. A drummer in a Reggae band, SR met him while at graduate school. “We both got interested in each other as we were both peace activists. It was a meeting of the minds, an intellectual companionship to start with.”
SR, who admits that she had many suitors, many of whom were Hindu like her, but when push came to shove, she found them very conservative in the issue of marriage. “It was fine as long as we were boyfriend-girlfriend but when it came to marriage unfortunately my Indian boyfriends showed how conservative they were.”
SR says her parents, who welcomed each and every male friend, regardless of religion warmly, didn’t believe she was serious about marrying her now husband. “My mother was surprised and asked me, since I wanted no children, why I wanted to get married and when I said she should be jumping and dancing in joy that I wanted to, she told, ‘you are watching too many Bollywood movies’!”
SR admits that she had reservations when meeting her Christian in-laws to-be. “I was concerned about opposition from them, but surprisingly there was none.”
A practicing Hindu, who lights a candle and says a daily prayer to the Gods in her home mandir (alter), told ‘American Kahani’ that if her husband is around, he will come and bow his head too. “He worships the spirits of nature and likes Native American rituals.”
Being in an interfaith marriage herself, SR, who is a professor weighs in on the concept of ‘love jihad’. “It is very similar to the ideology of the Nazis, because it is basically the idea of keeping the races and in our case, the religions, separate. It’s an attack on democracy. The problem is when you pass an ordinance on religious conversions, like UP did in Nov, the problem becomes who will examine them to determine if they are forcible conversions. What if one is happy to convert? Who is the government to intervene in one’s personal life?” SR asks incredulously.
Seeing the idea of ‘love jihad’ gathering momentum in UP, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh in India, SR is worried. “This is really frightening. Now it is no longer a fringe belief. It has crossed into the mainstream with the Indian state governments actually sanctioning it, allowing the goon squads to come in and attack people, which they are already doing!”
New Jersey-based investment banker Gaurav Shukla (name changed on request) is a newlywed. The 27-year-old tied the knot with his Pakistani fiancée in December 2020, amidst the pandemic. A small affair in New Jersey, attended by only immediate family and a few close friends. Hailing from UP in India, the hot-bed of the love-jihad controversy, Shukla says, “I am married to a Pakistani Muslim girl and as you know she’s not only Muslim but Pakistani and Indian and Pakistan are always at odds,” adding, “initially my parents were quite reluctant because not only was in interreligious but between two warring countries. But after a while they accepted it.”
Telling American Kahani specifically on how his relationship was fraught with tension, Shukla says, “My parents were worried about how we would visit each other’s countries and where we would live as I am here on an H1B visa. She is on a green card…so our situation given the current political scenario is precarious. And neither of us can live in the other’s home country, without some risk. They were also worried about how we would mix our faiths and raise our children, as we come from different faith backgrounds.”
Shukla, who met his wife in graduate school, says that in the event they have to leave the U.S., a more accepting Canada would be their refuge. “The idea of living in India or Pakistan is hard to fathom right now. I know of Hindu and Pakistani couples that are living in India, but with the current mahaul (environment) there, I am hesitant to.”
As to the religion of his future children, Shukla says, “I am not a strictly practicing Hindu anyway and for the longest time I have been attracted to Islam. The extent of my Hinduism is observing festivals and our decision is to celebrate both and let them choose their way through exposure to both our faiths.”
Shukla says since getting married in the U.S. negates signing a paper that states the non-Islamic partner has converted to Islam, “conversion was never an issue” adding, “My in-laws did discuss the idea of my converting with their daughter but in the end left the decision to us.”
However, the couple did decide to have Shukla convert to Islam in name so as to make travel to Pakistan easier and go to Mecca during the holy months. However, despite that Shukla does not purport to the idea of ‘love jihad.’ “Marrying outside your faith without parental permission is incredibly hard. The idea that Muslims are going around seducing Hindus and forcing them to convert is ignoring the fact that the relationship are hard without the government bearing down on us.”
And with many of his extended family members back in UP, dead against this union, Shukla hopes he can visit his home country with his new bride, adding slightly despondently that “I am very hesitant to go back to Uttar Pradesh right now, but one can always hope that things improve.”
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.