When the BBC’s adaptation of Vikram’s Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy recently landed on Indian Netflix it did not take long for the fanfare to turn to controversy.
The series, it was claimed by politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), had “hurt religious sentiments” of Hindus by depicting the lead character, a Hindu girl called Lata, passionately kissing a Muslim boy against the backdrop of a temple.
The accusation over the series based on Seth’s novel about love and politics in post-partition India was the latest in a debate that has exercised the country in the past few weeks after four states, all with BJP governments, said they would pass laws to make “love jihad” illegal – referring to forced conversion for the purposes of marriage.
This week, two senior officials at Netflix India were booked by police for “objectionable scenes” in A Suitable Boy. Gaurav Tiwari, a BJP youth wing leader, demanded Netflix remove the content and apologise for “encouraging love jihad”, and called for a nationwide boycott of the streaming platform. A police investigation is under way.
The “love jihad” conspiracy theory claims that Muslim men are part of a plot to lure Hindu women into marriage to force their conversion to Islam. It was once a fringe notion among the Hindu right, but since the BJP came to power in 2014 it has entered the mainstream, feeding a culture of suspicion around interfaith couples.
At the heart of the debate lies a crucial concern: that there is no substantive evidence that the practice exists in India. In February, the government confirmed that the term “love jihad” was not defined under any existing laws and no cases had been reported to central agencies for investigation.
In Uttar Pradesh, of 14 recent cases investigated by police, eight were found to involve consenting couples and no convictions were made.
Interfaith marriage has remained rare and is often frowned upon in India. However, in the last few years couples in such marriages have spoken of facing unprecedented social, legal and familial persecution. They have reported intimidation and violence from extremist Hindu groups, who can target their homes, send threats over WhatsApp and publish their details on social media.
Asif Iqbal, the co-founder of Dhanak of Humanity, an organisation that assists interfaith couples, said: “Interfaith marriage has always been challenging in India but in recent years it has become very dangerous. Now we see families trying to intimidate their own children out of interfaith marriages by contacting a Hindu fanatic group who will create trouble and use violence.”
Not all interfaith marriages involve religious conversion. The right to a secular marriage is enshrined in the 1954 Special Marriage Act but many in India are completely unaware that this law even exists.
In Uttar Pradesh police visit the parents of couples who register for an interfaith secular marriage, and have been reported trying to intimidate them into halting proceedings. District registrars regularly refuse to register interfaith marriages, and under the law 30-day notices of marriages are sent to the parents of couples, as well as posted on public noticeboards and in national newspapers. This can pose an extra dilemma for interfaith couples who do not have consent from their parents.
Akanksha Sharma, 31, a Hindu, spoke of the difficulties and trauma she faced in trying to marry Mohammad Abdul Suaib, 34, a Muslim, in 2015, against the will of their families. After escaping from her family, who had taken her prisoner, the couple had to move cities and jobs in order to find a registrar.
“Many people, including members of my family, were telling me that I was a victim of love jihad and were expecting my husband would force me to become a non-vegetarian or convert me forcibly,” said Sharma. “It has been five years and still people call or message me to see if I have been forced to convert and if the jihad has happened. It is a myth, there is no jihad in love.”
Critics say the move to target marriages between Hindus and Muslims under the law is part of an attempt to further the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda.
The Rajasthan chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, from the opposition Congress party, accused the BJP of manufacturing the idea of love jihad to “divide the nation and disturb communal harmony”.
TS Singh Deo, another Congress minister, said love jihad was “an exhaustingly bigoted term coined by BJP”, adding: “The hatred and intolerance has crept so deeply that they are now brazenly planning laws against consensual interfaith marriages.”
The BJP’s general secretary, Arun Singh, said: “Love jihad is a serious problem … many mothers and sisters have suffered its bad consequences. This is a state matter and state governments should enact law against it.”
The rightwing firebrand chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, has sought to portray the issue as a key concern. On Wednesday the state drafted a law outlawing conversion for the purposes of marriage, though it did not refer specifically to love jihad.
The chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Karnataka have all declared they would follow Adityanath’s example. The state of Himachal Pradesh enacted strict laws against forced conversion last year. “This love jihad has been there for some time and it is a social evil,” said Basavaraj Bommai, Karnataka’s home minister.
However, judges in the Prayagraj high court in Uttar Pradesh this week said the law had no place interfering in marriage choices, and condemned a previous 2014 court ruling that ruled it “unacceptable” to change religion for the purpose of marriage.
“The right to live with a person of his or her choice, irrespective of religion professed by them, is intrinsic to right to life and personal liberty,” said Justice Pankaj Naqvi and Justice Vivek Agarwal.