Comment

Daring to love beyond societal limits

‘Love jihad’ has slipped effortlessly into our public vocabulary, as if it were a social truism. The term is taken to refer to a deliberate campaign that uses love, seduction and trickery to convert Hindu (and Christian) women to Islam. It is claimed that money and planning are invested in such a venture, with Muslim youth being groomed — provided with mobile phones, dark glasses, and a pair of jeans — to be attractive to Hindu women. Once ‘caught’, it is alleged, Hindu women end up converting to Islam and marrying Muslim men.

Investigations into Hindu-Muslim marriages that appeared to have taken place under ‘suspicious’ circumstances have shown many of these to be consensual. Both the police and the courts have admitted to as much, in Karnataka and Kerala. But such admissions and findings have not deterred those who insist that ‘jihadists’ are on the prowl, and are looking to deceive foolish and trusting Hindu women. There are repeated assertions to this effect, ‘discoveries’ of Hindu-Muslim sexual liaisons, subsequent filing of complaints, and investigations. An imagined threat is thus actualised, in law and through governance. And, thus, ‘love jihad’ assumes a life of its own.

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‘Retrieving’ lost Hindu manhood

Invoking a ‘love jihad’ where none exists has to do with a history of Hindu beleaguerment. As historian Charu Gupta has demonstrated, since the 1920s, upper caste Hindu thinkers, men of god and political leaders, especially those associated with the Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have expressed indignation and resentment against centuries of Muslim rule, and blamed the loss of Hindu ‘manliness’ for allowing such rule in the first place. In order to ‘retrieve’ lost Hindu manhood, they advocated a robust physical culture for Hindu youth, and also warned Hindu men to not let their women go astray. Thus, Hindu men from all castes, including subaltern ones, were enjoined to be watchful and guard their women against Muslim predators, even as women were told to keep themselves ‘pure’ in order that they might be fit mothers of the nation. The idea was to build a grand, national brotherhood of Hindu men from all castes: shared trepidation over Muslim sexual prowess and mistrust of Hindu women’s ability to know what was good for them formed the basis for this putative national community.

Today we are witness to a similar phenomenon. Once again, Hindus are asked to step up and do their duty by their faith. The fundamental difference though is that such an entreaty comes from a position of brute power, but its core content remains the same. While all of this is appalling, the invocation of ‘love jihad’ secures social traction because it repeats and builds on tried and tiresome sexual rhetoric which is commonplace in caste society.

Lawlessness sanctified as custom

Women are often warned of unsuitable men (read: from castes below their own, or from other religions) who shall try and woo them, and are urged to marry within designated limits of caste and community; whereas men are told who they could sexually possess (all women, but in particular those over whom they exercise caste and class authority), and who they ought to legitimately marry. These warnings come with threats of punitive action, often directed against ‘erring’ women who choose to be with men from castes ‘below’ their own, and against Dalit men who ‘dare’ love and marry women from castes placed ‘above’ them.

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No law of the land endorses these arrangements, but as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar pointed out, the law notwithstanding, lawlessness, sanctified as custom and tradition, stalks the land, and influences not only civic behaviour, but also the administration, including the judicial system. Unsurprisingly, when young persons across caste lines choose to leave home and marry, they are ‘advised’ by officialdom to be mindful of family and community honour and sentiments. Women, especially, are berated, lectured, and separated from those they have chosen to be with, and ‘restored’ to their natal homes.

Warnings

In a culture that routinely infantilises women or views them as foolish and incapable of rational choice, this is to be expected. From family to kin to khap to caste, women are constantly told what to do, and how to comport themselves, and to ensure that they are not like ‘other’, ‘promiscuous’ women from castes and communities that are socially and culturally ‘low’. Meanwhile, these ‘lower’ caste women are warned that they ought not to step beyond limits ordained for them: not educate themselves, protest the social and economic conditions of their existence, and that if they do, they stand to be punished. Studies of violence against Dalit and Adivasi women indicate that protesting women and those who dare to be different are earmarked for acts of abuse and violence.

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Bad enough that caste society is sustained by puerile fears to do with transgressive love, which sadly enough are also internalised by women, who then strive hard to be ‘good’ and proclaim their caste honour. But to have parts of a nation get phobic over women’s alleged lack of emotional judgment and the alleged chicanery of Muslims is worse and civilisationally pathetic. While we stake our rights to lives and loves of our choice, equally, we might want to assert our right to re-imagine this nation, not in terms of faith and caste, but in ways we have learned from anti-caste and feminist traditions — where the nation is essentially an equal, just and fraternal society.

V. Geetha is a feminist historian and writer

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 3:57:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/daring-to-love-beyond-societal-limits/article33172069.ece

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