In a recent television discussion on the challenge posed by the spread of Naxalism in India, several participants spoke glowingly about the strength of Indian democracy and how all Indians should celebrate the freedom and tolerance that exists in this country. If you constantly compare yourself to countries that work under different systems of government, then perhaps you can persuade yourself to believe that this is indeed a country that allows all its citizens free choice.
The reality, as we know, is very different. There is little of free choice for the small and marginal farmers whose land is forcibly acquired for industries, special economic zones, large dams or other infrastructure. There is no free choice for Adivasis demanding their rights when the land they have nurtured and depend on is upturned for the mineral wealth that lies beneath it. And there is no such thing as free choice for the majority of Indian women whose life choices are pre-determined by patriarchy, community, caste, religion or social class. If any of them dare to break out and actually make a free choice, they risk at worst death and at best being outcast.
It is against this background that we have the strange case of stories circulating first in Kerala and then in Dakshina Kannada (South Karnataka) about a so-called “Love Jehad” where Hindu girls were allegedly being lured by Muslim youth and forced to convert to Islam. The rumour mill began with a report in a Kerala newspaper and was soon picked up by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (which claims to be “uniting Hindus globally”) and dozens of other similar sectarian groups in Dakshina Kannada. Through the Internet, public demonstrations and statements, they claimed that thousands of Hindu girls were being lured and converted to Islam in Kerala and Karnataka and that the State must intervene.
The courts were also brought into the act, first the Kerala High Court that ordered an inquiry followed by the Karnataka High Court. The Director General of Police, Kerala has already reported to the Kerala High Court that there is no such group or organisation called “Love Jehad” or “Romeo Jehad” (another name doing the rounds). But the reports are being investigated. The Karnataka High Court has also instituted an inquiry and holds that the issue has “national ramifications concerning security, besides the question of unlawful trafficking of women.”
Like the Kerala police, the Dakshina Kannada police has also clarified that the rumour is baseless in the face of facts. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS) claims that 3,000 Hindu girls are “missing” in Dakshina Kannada and 30,000 in the rest of the state. The police have clarified that till the end of September 2009, there were reports of 404 missing girls of whom the police had traced 332. By end October, only 57 women were still missing. Furthermore, the police have clarified that where women were missing because they had eloped, there were many cases of non-Hindus as well as Hindus eloping with Hindus.
The Dakshina Kannada police also explained that in one particular case, that of a 22-year-old girl who had been missing since June and who was rumoured to have fallen victim to this so-called “Love Jehad”, in fact, she had been murdered by a Hindu man, a serial killer who confessed to his crime.
If the Kerala police and the Dakshina Kannada police are right, it is evident that this “Love Jehad” rumour is a figment of the same imagination that concluded that women drinking at pubs in Mangalore were a threat to “Indian” culture. Yes, the same Pramod Mutalik of the Sri Ram Sene and the Mangalore pub attack fame has now re-emerged to fight against “terrorism and love Jehad”.
The story does not end with the so-called Love Jehad. In Kerala, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mouthpiece, Janmabhumi, sacked a woman journalist who got married to a Christian and converted. They claimed they could not employ a convert because they were against conversions.
One could laugh off this as the desperate and ridiculous attempts of the Hindu Right to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment in any way they can. But we cannot and should not take it lightly. Every Indian citizen is guaranteed freedom of choice under the Constitution. The Special Marriage Act 1954 is designed to allow people of different faiths or even of the same faith to get married under a secular civil law that consists of a contract between two consenting adults. As long as the man and the woman involved are above the legal age of marriage, they have every right to choose whom they will marry and under what law or religion they will marry. If one partner chooses of her or his free will to convert to the religion of the other, that too is a right people are guaranteed. This is the domain of the personal. It is not the business of people like the HJS or Pramod Mutalik who want to push their narrow view of what they would like Indian society to be.
Whipping up hysteria
The job of the media should be to expose such nonsense and to place the full facts before people. Unfortunately, both in Kerala and Karnataka, the media have been used to whip up the rumour mill and only a few newspapers, including this one, have tried to place hard facts in the public realm. But the power of rumour, particularly of this vicious kind, is often so strong that facts are overwhelmed and forgotten in the face of constant repetition of lies.
In the war of competing ideologies, women are often caught in the middle. While men fight to establish laws that guarantee their supremacy, they ensure that women are subjugated and not allowed free will or choice. Women are also free citizens of a democratic India. Rumours and vicious campaigns of this kind, which ultimately result in enforcing greater controls on women, go against the essential features of a truly free and democratic society.
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