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Why interfaith marriage in India is getting dangerous

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
January 11, 2023

Citing archaic "anti-conversion" laws, right-wing Hindu groups are working to prevent marriages between Indian Hindus and Muslims. Some couples have faced violence and death threats.

A woman in a red smock and a man with a white hat
A Hindu bride and a Muslim groom during a mass wedding in KolkataImage: Santarpan Roy/Pacific Press/picture alliance

Interfaith marriages in India have been a sensitive issue for many years, with authorities and Hindu right-wing organizations disrupting weddings between Hindus and Muslims under so-called "anti-conversion" laws.

In one incident two years ago, Indian police stopped an interfaith marriage in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh despite the consent of both families. Before the ceremony could begin, a police team intervened following a complaint by a local Hindu right-wing leader.

In India, most marriages are still arranged by families. Intercaste and interfaith marriages are looked down upon and considered taboo in many places.

In extreme cases, families have attacked or even killed couples for falling in love or for trying to marry someone outside their religion.

India's 'anti-conversion' laws

At least eight states, including six governed by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have passed anti-conversion laws that ban religious conversion solely for the purpose of marriage.

Last month, in the western state of Maharashtra, the government formed a 13-member panel to investigate interfaith marriages in the state and maintain a record of couples and their families.

Last month, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a hardline Hindu group, launched a nationwide public "awareness campaign," claiming that Hindu women are being caught up in "love jihad" and illegal religious conversions.

"Love jihad" is a derogatory term used by the Hindu right-wing to describe an alleged phenomenon where Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriage and conversion to Islam. Hindu groups claim, without evidence, it is an organized conspiracy.

Brides wearing red costumes
Many marriages in India are still arranged by families based on religion or casteImage: Saurabh Das/AP/picture alliance

VHP national spokesperson Vinod Bansal claimed the alleged practice was a "heinous form of religious conversion."

"There is a strong need for enactment of a stringent central law to check 'love jihad' and illegal religious conversions," Bansal told DW.

How marriage becomes a crime

Asif Iqbal, co-founder of NGO "Dhanak of Humanity," a platform to extend help for interfaith couples, told DW that many couples live in fear of their relationships becoming a criminal offense under the current attempts at legal reforms.

"Prevailing legal and social situations have effectively decreased the number of interfaith marriages," Iqbal said.

"Interfaith marriage has always been challenging in India, but the discrimination and threats of violence now make the struggle to assist such couples more difficult than ever," he added.

In the last decade, the NGO has helped over 5,000 couples of different faiths, castes and communities come together. However, Iqbal said there has been a sharp decrease in the number of couples coming to seek help.

"Couples have to leave their state to get married in some other state where religious marriage is not a crime," he said.

"Moreover, the police and the judiciary in many states are not ready to help couples and sometime don't offer protection," he added.

Living in an atmosphere of fear

Amid heightened communal tensions in recent years, interfaith and intercaste couples in India face bullying, harassment, opposition from relatives and even death threats.

Since the BJP was elected in 2014, tensions between Hindus and Muslims have become more polarized. The introduction of anti-conversion laws is indicative of a rise in Hindu nationalism, say activists.

Outrage over BJP official's 'Islamophobic' comments

"The laws are an intimidatory tactic against minority communities. Now, even the special marriage act registrations for interfaith marriages are a basis of harassment for young people," Malavika Rajkotia, a lawyer who focuses on family and property law, told DW.

India's special marriage act was enacted to validate and register interreligious and inter-caste marriages and allows two adults to marry through a civil contract.

However, couples have to wait for more than a month to register their marriage, allowing time for harassment from disagreeable family members and authorities.

To counter the hate and bigotry directed at interfaith couples, married couple Samar Halarnkar and Priya Ramani launched the "India Love Project" on Instagram in 2020, which rejects religious polarization and celebrates interfaith relationships.

"In a country that is increasingly criminalizing interfaith love, the project became a space where differences are cherished and cheered. Honestly, it's a bubble of love, a safe space in a toxic landscape," Ramani told DW.

The right to interfaith marriage in India

Indira Jaising, a senior Supreme Court lawyer who has worked extensively on this issue, told DW that in the last few years, India has enacted specific laws targeting interfaith marriages.

Men in religious garb walk in a line
Muslim, Christian and Hindu religious leaders took part in a mass wedding ceremony of many couples in 2020Image: Santarpan Roy/Pacific Press/picture alliance

"An individual actively 'adopts' another religion when choosing to marry a person from a different religion under that religion's personal law. This, too, is a freedom that is guaranteed under the constitution," Jaising said.

She added that the laws are liable to be challenged for violating the Indian constitutional guarantee to practice freedom of religion.

"Laws barring marriage through religious conversion run afoul of India's foundational value of secularism," she added.

According to the Indian Constitution, citizens have the freedom to "profess, practice and propagate" religion. The word "propagate" also includes the citizen's right to convert.

Last week, the Supreme Court began hearing two public interest litigations challenging anti-conversion laws passed in several states that seek to prohibit religious conversion by marriage and make it mandatory to give notice of conversion to the state authorities.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11