It looked as if the controversy over ‘Love Jihad’ ( ‘jihad defined as ‘war by other means’) had blown over with state authorities in Kerala and Karnataka denying that such a threat ever existed. The Central Government informed the Kerala High Court early this month that there was no such thing and that the term ‘love jihad’ was being used by the media. However, this week, the Kerala High Court openly voiced its scepticism of police reports, claiming that the reports were inconsistent and citing various technical flaws.
The Court claims that it is abiding by the secular spirit of the Indian Constitution: it agrees that the freedoms to choose one’s faith and one’s partner in marriage are fundamental rights. However, it feels that the present instances of marriage and conversions that have been brought to its attention are not the exercise of freedom by individuals — specifically, by young women, though the Court does not say it that way. It is difficult to imagine a more anti-Muslim and anti-woman position; and it is a serious matter that the muddle-headed reasoning of the judge has been uncritically circulated in the dominant media.
In a strong sense, the issue was blown up in the media precisely because the judiciary granted it a degree of seriousness. The snowballing started when courts in Kerala and Karnataka asked authorities to probe charges that Muslim men were “luring” “gullible” “young” women from other religions into their religion through the promise of marriage and “forcibly” converting them.
Early in October, Justice K T Sankaran rejected the anticipatory bail plea of two Muslim men and ordered the DGP, Jacob Punnose, to conduct a probe into ‘love jihad’. The police report was wishy-washy: on the one hand it denied the existence of such an organization; on the other hand, it hinted that some conversions may have happened in this manner. In the same month, a court in Bangalore ordered a similar probe during the hearing of a habeas corpus petition. The woman is question was an adult, but the court ordered her to stay with her parents until it was clear that she had indeed married for love.
The impact of the controversy has been devastating, especially on young Muslim men, who are now forced to carry yet another burden of suspicion. The major gainer, no doubt, has been rightwing civil society. The controversy frightens because it reveals not just Islamophobia becoming banal but also the growing capacity of rightwing civil society to silence mainstream politics, and the weakening of leftwing civil society.
In Kerala, the rightwing orientation of organised Hindu and Christian faith bared its fangs, claiming that there was a well-organized, well-funded, clandestine Muslim organization behind alleged ’seductions’: they were referring to a few instances in which Hindu and Christian women chose to marry Muslim men — their classmates. The Christian Church issued ‘guidelines’ to families to ‘protect’ their young women from being ’seduced’. Christian and Hindu rightwing tendencies held hands: not surprising, given the fact that the former has indeed been seeking opportunities to renew closeness with the latter.
In Kerala, rightwing coalitions between Hindu upper caste-community organizations and the Christian Church have historically been successful in reining in the ‘atheists’ in a variety of issues from the mid-twentieth century onwards, the latest being sex education. This was briefly disrupted in the 1980s when the Hindu rightwing began to gain an independent presence in the Malayalee public and entered into adversarial combat with the Christian Church over several controversies. Recently, however, the alliance has been renewed, and despite the horrors suffered by the Christians of Orissa (a prominent Bishop declared that the attack on the faith was more dangerous than attack on life and property in the Church!). In fact the most recent occasion for their unity was during the ‘textbook controversy’ — which, interestingly, was about a textbook lesson which spoke of inter-religious marriage in which the male partner was portrayed as Muslim. Since no community leadership likes inter-community marriages, the coalition remains unaffected by incidents in which coalition partners may appear to be acting against each other: at the height of the controversy, the BJP-mouthpiece Janmabhoomi sacked a woman journalist who converted after marrying a Christian.
Historically, inter-caste or inter-religious marriage was never high on the social agenda of political movements in Kerala though the upper echelons of the communist movement did marry across caste and religion. It was always viewed as not a political, but social issue, and was promoted by a small but influential group of intellectuals led by Sahodaran K Ayyappan, aligned with the rationalist movement in the mid-twentieth century. This initiative did not thrive in post-Independence Kerala. The transformation of marriage in twentieth century Kerala which included the institutionalization of conjugal marriage, patriarchy and dowry, the specific implications of Kerala’s demographic transition for community politics, and the inflow of remittances from the Gulf after the 1970s have ensured that community boundaries and the institution of arranged marriage which sustains them remain hale and hearty.
Arranged marriage, in other words, remains central to the maintenance of community boundaries and middle-class power in Kerala and criticism of this practice wore thin towards the end of twentieth century — feminists and others who have directly criticized it have borne the label of ’sexual anarchists’. In fact, even in marriages across caste and religion (the ‘love marriages’) the widespread expectation is that the woman should migrate to her husband’s community identity — or at least to his community-shaped domestic culture. In the wake of the controversy, some commentators argued that Hindu males do not often ask their non-Hindu partners to convert formally – this is a facile observation, for the woman’s integration into her husband’s social world happens irrespective of whether she is formally converted to his faith or not.
No greater evidence for the judiciary’s biased reasoning needs to be marshalled: how come that the above practice has become a crime just now? Given the fact that communities (and many families) in Kerala tend to reject their members, especially women, who marry others, it is only rational, in the Kerala context, for a woman to move on to her husband’s community after marriage. How come the judge does not see this? Why is he so confident that her family and community which want to annul her decision will treat her with respect? How is he so sure that women who enter the Muslim community through marriage will not exercise the same degrees of informal power that married women of other communities do? Is he also sure that non-Muslim women who have married within their community (and most of all the caste-ridden Hindu!) are being treated with respect and receive greater justice? If the judge in question is so divorced from everyday social reality in Kerala, so blinded by the half-baked rants about Muslim family life circulated by Hindu and Christian rightwingers, and indeed so ignorant of informed debate on women’s rights, marriage and family in India, he probably does not deserve to stay in the esteemed chair that he occupies. The judge’s comments are not only anti-Muslim; they indicate distrust of young woman’s capacity for decision-making, blindly entrusts her to the family, and protects the interests of powerful communities. Nothing could be farther from the Indian Constitution.
Islamophobia has been growing in the State and has been visible in various ways; but more than reaffirming this fact, this controversy, for me, provides incontrovertible evidence for the social disempowerment of women in Kerala, which has been hard to prove, given the pervasiveness of the Kerala Model discourse (in which many powerful academics have made heavy career-investments!). Just the other day, a young researcher from the US, a first-time visitor to Kerala, expressed dismay at how the Court could have made such statements in a State so well-known for its ‘empowered’ women. For me, tying female agency to social development, as she did, is equally worrying — for it was precisely the ‘wisdom’ evoked by the rightwing coalition to justify their assault on women’s independent choices of partners. For, historically, the ‘empowered woman’ of twentieth century Kerala has been she who, with all her social-development attributes, would remain subservient to the community she was born in. Historically, the much-celebrated history of community formation in Kerala, found by some to be the ‘communal road to a secular Kerala’, has also been the history of women’s reduction to minor status within these modernizing communities, and female education was conceived as not so much a deterrent to this, but actually its instrument.
The ’socially developed’ woman, in this reckoning, is not someone who will not smudge community boundaries; rather, she contributes ‘gender-capital’, performs ‘community status-production’, in and for the community. The present controversy and the statements made by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Christian Church are entirely consistent with dominant aspects of ‘social development’ in Kerala, and reveals its conservative underbelly. We need to remember that even major figures of Kerala’s much-discussed social ‘renaissance’, like V. T. Bhattatiripad, did swing towards a position close to the VHP’s current line when it was a case of a brahmin woman marrying a Muslim, and by her own decision.
As far as I know from research, inter- and intra- community marriage in Kerala carries more or less similar risks for women given the utterly gender-unequal contexts in which it happens. If the former carries greater risks, that should be attributed to the exclusivist practices of community life, and not to ‘wrong-decision making’ on the woman’s part. But the judge seems to be on ‘jihad’ for the protection of community-interests and against young women’ s agency — and there is very little in Kerala’s ‘progressive legacy’ — and in most ‘progressive’ academic wisdom on Kerala — that can stop it from doing so.