Days after a Muslim man and a Hindu woman in northern India eloped last year, they were traced to another state and Owais Ahmed was jailed. He was only freed after the woman insisted she had not been kidnapped.
She is now married to someone more to her parents’ liking. But Mr Ahmed, 24, is again in trouble: he has become the first man arrested under a new law designed to eradicate what Hindu nationalists call “love jihad”.
A bogey of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party and its hardline base, love jihad is depicted as a conspiracy by Muslim men to erode Hindus’ overwhelming demographic majority by seducing Hindu girls and persuading them to convert to Islam for marriage.
The country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, which led by divisive Hindu cleric Yogi Adityanath, last week pushed through an emergency law to prevent such unions by prohibiting religious conversion for marriage. The “crime” will be punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
Four other BJP-ruled states — Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Assam, and Haryana — have announced plans for similar laws to combat a practice they insist poses a serious threat to Hindu women. Hindus make up almost 80 per cent of the population and Muslims just over 14 per cent.
“You need to prevent any kind of deception, fraud and misrepresentation,” said Nupur Sharma, a BJP spokeswoman. “The government wants to know that you are not converting under pressure.”
Women’s groups and opposition politicians insist that the practice is not a real social hazard, existing solely in the fevered imaginings of social conservatives uncomfortable with women choosing their own spouses in a society where arranged marriages within castes or religious groups are the norm.
“There is nothing like love jihad. There is no concerted conspiracy that has been unearthed in India,” said Madhu Mehra, a feminist lawyer. “It’s just about demonising Muslims.”
India’s Special Marriage Act permits people of different faiths to marry, but only after a month’s notice period during which the couple’s intentions, and their personal details, are widely publicised.
When interfaith couples seek to marry against their families’ wishes, the notice period gives parents time to block the unions. In recent years, Hindu vigilantes have disrupted interfaith weddings, even when families approved the match.
To circumvent those obstacles, interfaith couples seeking to elope often turn to quick religious weddings, preceded by the religious conversion of one partner. But that recourse has been blocked by the new rules in Uttar Pradesh, where Mr Adityanath has repeatedly warned Muslim boys to stay away from Hindu girls or face severe punishment.
Under the emergency law, a person who wishes to change faiths must apply to a government official 60 days in advance so that police can investigate the “real intention, purpose and cause of the religious conversion”.
Any “undue influence” discovered will render both the conversion and the marriage void.
Even after someone converts, the law allows any member of their extended family to file a police complaint. The burden of proof then falls to those who facilitated the conversion, including the spouse, to prove a crime had not been committed.
“There is no recognition of autonomy of the girl,” said Ms Mehra. “The state is now the patriarch, which owns Hindu girls as their property, and is going to decide who they marry.”
In the case against Mr Ahmed, the complaint was filed by the woman’s father hours after the law came into force. “He was putting pressure on the girl to convert and marry him,” a UP police officer said. Mr Ahmed, who had fled, was tracked down and arrested on Wednesday.
Though it is cloaked in warnings of forced conversion, the law has been likened by lawyers and academics to the 1935 Nuremberg laws banning marriages between Jews and those of “pure” German blood, as well as to now defunct anti-miscegenation laws in the US.
The marriage restrictions follow a series of BJP-backed laws that analysts say have marginalised India’s Muslim minority, including a controversial rule giving fast-track citizenship to Hindus and followers of Indic religions over others, notably Muslims.
Ali Khan Mahmudabad, a political-science professor at Ashoka University, said the spectre of love jihad echoes century-old stereotypes propagated by upper-caste, vegetarian Hindus that Muslim men have rapacious sexual appetites, fuelled by eating meat.
“It’s an old trope centred around the idea of the Muslim as a sexual predator,” he said. “This whole rhetoric centres around sexual anxieties. As far back as the 19th century, there is this anxiety that the Hindu population is declining.”
Today, he said, the BJP’s legislative push to curb what they see as a demographic shift is largely aimed at reinforcing the perceptions of Muslims as a persistent threat to Hindu society.
“The law is giving legal credibility to a conspiracy theory,” he said. “All this is designed to drive people apart and create an unbridgeable chasm between the two communities. It’s dehumanising the other.”