Propaganda about ‘love jihad’ spreads to Maharashtra’s Dhule district

When 26-year-old Roshni (name changed) wanted to marry her Muslim boyfriend last year, the opposition came not from their families but from a Hindu vigilante group, the Hindu Rakshak Samiti (HRS), active in this region close to Nasik.

“They harassed my parents and relatives, saying we would be ostracised. They even threatened my husband’s family,” said Roshni , who went ahead with the marriage. But the days leading up to the ceremony were fraught with tension.

The Hindu met with members of the HRS, who spoke openly about their campaign on the condition that they would not be named. Formed in 2005, the all-male squad has a clear agenda: “saving” Hindu women from Muslim men. They see themselves as warriors against what they call “Love Jihad,” a conspiracy theory floated by Hindutva groups like the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti which claims that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriage with the aim of increasing their own population. The vigilantist propaganda campaign, which initially took root in Karnataka and Kerala, has now spread to this region in Maharashtra.

In Dhule, the HRS has an extensive network with a well laid out modus operandi. It has recruited young men who are stationed across the city, especially in colleges. If they see Hindu girls befriending Muslim boys, they warn them. Then they inform their parents about the friendship and ask them to keep their daughters “in check.” Most of its members belong to the BJP, the Shiv Sena or the RSS.

The vigilantes include 24-year-old Rohan Kulkarni, among the few who agreed to be named. While speaking to this reporter, he received a phone call. “A Hindu girl was seen entering with a Muslim boy,” said the voice on the phone. A few calls later, the Muslim boy was confronted by seven Hindu activists. “We told him that if he’s seen with any other Hindu girl again there will be consequences,” Mr. Kulkarni told The Hindu, proudly.

“My advice to Hindu girls is — start saying Jai Shri Ram and Muslim boys won’t trouble them,” said the part-time newsreader. “Girls are fooled easily by boys who give them gifts. We are here to protect our sisters,” Mr. Kulkarni argued. “They are boys I have grown up with. But once they make friends with Hindu girls, they don’t introduce us to them,” he said, not without a hint of jealousy.

The HRS claims to have “solved” 15 relationships by parting Hindu-Muslim couples. It even maintains it has the support of the local traffic authorities who help them identify Muslim boys. “We have two RTO agents as volunteers. They can easily detect if a bike belongs to a Hindu or a Muslim and then we can act,” said a lawyer who is part of the HRS.

The group claims it is often contacted by the parents of the young women. “They call us to solve the matter,” said an oil trader who is part of the HRS. Earlier this year, he said they handled one such case where a daughter had eloped with a Muslim man. “We tried to convince her. When she didn’t listen, we slapped her,” he said candidly.

But they admit that sometimes their efforts are thwarted. “We are ready to face abuse from the girls and their parents. This is our duty,” said an HRS member who is a BJP corporator. Last year, their attempt to convince a Maratha family failed. “We couldn’t do anything as her parents didn’t entertain us. They will realise their mistake soon,” he said, justifying their actions.

He said his organisation would continue to get involved even though there was no coercive element in these relationships. “All the girls are above 18 years, and they marry with consent. But the girls cannot see the sinister plot behind this fake love,” he claimed.

Surprisingly, the police have taken no notice of this vigilante squad despite its strong-arm tactics. “We have not received any complaints. Inter-religious marriages are common these days,” said Dhule additional police superintendent Akhilesh Kumar. “If there is any group that is spreading rumours of a conspiracy, they might be doing so for political benefit,” he added.