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A Dispatch from India’s Culture War

India’s ruling Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party has recently whipped up hysteria over the largely imaginary crime of “love jihad,” reflecting the party’s deeply entrenched Islamophobia. The BJP's culture war must be fought in the courts – but even more in the hearts of all Indians.

NEW DELHI – As if the raging COVID-19 pandemic, a spluttering economy, record-high unemployment, and massive farmers’ protests besieging the country’s capital weren’t enough, India’s ruling Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has now incited a new crisis: a culture war.

In late November, India’s largest state, BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, introduced a new law to combat the largely imaginary crime of “love jihad” – a conspiracy theory claiming that Muslim men seduce Hindu women as a ploy to oblige them to convert to Islam through marriage. The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance stipulates that a marriage will be declared “null and void” if a woman converts to Islam solely for marriage. Women wishing to change their religion after getting married need to apply to the District Magistrate for permission, a breathtaking assault on individual liberty that combines misogyny, patriarchy, and religious bigotry.

The measure is the brainchild of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-robed monk whose inflammatory rhetoric has made him one of the BJP’s best-known and most polarizing figures. And it takes a sledgehammer to the freedom of worship enjoyed by Indian citizens under the country’s constitution. By the first week of December, state police had arrested and filed charges against seven people. Conviction carries a maximum sentence of ten years’ imprisonment.

Much of India has long celebrated the intermingling of Hindu and Muslim cultural practices. But the Ganga-Jamni Tehzeeb, or “composite culture,” emerging from the interaction of the two faiths’ practitioners is now under assault from officially fomented bigotry. The BJP derives its political strength from campaigning aggressively as the vehicle of an assertive Hindu community, and regards stoking anti-Muslim sentiment as a vote-winner.

The BJP had previously campaigned successfully to build a Hindu temple on the site of a demolished mosque in Ayodhya, criminalize the Muslim divorce practice known as triple talaq, dismantle the special protections afforded to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, and enact a law that excludes Muslims from the fast-track Indian citizenship available to refugees of other faiths. All these steps have reinforced the party’s “tough on Muslims” image, and Uttar Pradesh’s new anti-conversion law fits that pattern.

In recent weeks, other BJP-run states in India’s Hindi-speaking heartland have whipped up hysteria over “love jihad,” reflecting the party’s deeply entrenched Islamophobia. State governments in Madhya Pradesh and Haryana have announced plans to enact laws to that of Uttar Pradesh.

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A BJP “youth leader” in Madhya Pradesh has gone further, persuading the police to file a case against two Netflix executives for allegedly offending Hindu religious sensibilities with a scene in the series A Suitable Boy in which a Hindu actress and a Muslim actor kissed briefly in front of a temple. The leader, Gaurav Tiwari, demanded an apology from Netflix and the removal of “objectionable scenes” that he alleged were also “encouraging love jihad.” Instead of dismissing the case as preposterous, the state’s home minister, Narottam Mishra, ordered an investigation.

Even reports that police in Uttar Pradesh have already dropped, for lack of evidence, eight of the 14 “love jihad” cases they had opened are highly unlikely to dampen the BJP’s sectarian ardor. A few months ago, the jewelry brand Tanishq, which markets itself as the choice of “modern” young consumers, was pressured, including by threats of violence, to withdraw a television commercial that portrayed a happy interfaith marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man.

Although Islam remains its favored target, the BJP’s Hindu chauvinists have taken umbrage at the cultural practices of India’s Christian minority, too. A group of zealots called the Bajrang Dal, one of the BJP-aligned Hindutva (“Hinduness”) movement’s many affiliated organizations, recently threatened violence against Hindus who visited churches during Christmas. Whereas Hinduism teaches reverence for other faiths, those who claim to be its doughty warriors admit no such ecumenism.

Valentine’s Day is another object of Hindutva warriors’ fury. Arguing that the occasion is un-Indian because it celebrates romantic love, they have attacked couples holding hands on February 14, trashed stores selling Valentine’s Day greeting cards, and shouted slogans outside cafes while couples canoodled inside.

Ironically, the Hindutva brigade has no real idea of Hindu tradition – their idea of Indian values is not only primitive and narrow-minded, but also profoundly ahistorical. India’s culture has always been capacious, expanding to include new and varied influences, from the Greek and Muslim invasions to the British.

The central battle in Indian civilization today is between those who acknowledge that, as a result of India’s historical experience, our culture is as diverse as it is vast, and those who have presumptuously taken it upon themselves to define, in ever narrower terms, what and who is “truly” Indian.

Modern Hinduism has always prided itself on its tolerance of differences. In fact, the modern era’s most famous Hindu sage, Swami Vivekananda, persuasively taught that the hallmark of Hindu civilization was not just tolerance but acceptance. With their narrow-minded bigotry, today’s Hindu chauvinists are fundamentally betraying their faith, as well as assaulting the Constitution.

The issue is not trivial. If intolerant bullies, now enjoying the blessing of elected BJP governments, are allowed to get away with their acts of intolerance and “lawful” intimidation, India would suffer violence to an ethos profoundly vital to its survival as a civilization, and as a liberal democracy.

Pluralist and democratic India must, by definition, tolerate plural expressions of its many identities. If we permit the self-appointed arbiters of Hindu culture to impose their hypocrisy and double standards on the rest of us, they will define down Indianness until it ceases to be Indian. The BJP-led culture war must be fought in the courts, but it will be won only in the hearts of all Indians.

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