I, as a citizen of the nation that Dr Ambedkar strove indefatigably to build, understand the Constitution as my Bible. It is the only morality we are called to align with. It is imbued with equality, liberty, secularity and autonomy. This is our India–an ideal meant for all and never just a select few.
But, the new Love Jihad Bill, tabled by the BJP-led UP government yet again threatens the heart of the Constitution.
The Bill attempts to criminalise ‘forceful’ religious conversions of Hindu women, most often upon marriage to Muslim men, with the ‘guilty’ party being sentenced to five years of rigorous imprisonment. Implicitly, it aims to curb interfaith marriages in the country and enable physical and emotional harm meted out to those who do.
Of course, forced religious conversion is horrendous. Historically, it has been a tool of imposing homogeneity, of stripping an entire people of not just their present reality but also their cultural heritage, land and identity. It is how oppressors attempt to rewrite history and it is pitiable but again, this is not what is happening right now.
The government’s bill has little to do with forced conversion. It is an attack on liberty, on love, on democracy and most importantly, on consent. The authority of consent is simple.
If there isn’t willingness, ability or enthusiasm while proclaiming a ‘yes’, then it’s a no. There is no negotiating with a ‘no’; no persuasion, no waiting till you finally come around to a ‘yes’, no tricky waters.
A ‘no’ is effective in conveying what it has to: an assertion of one’s own assessment of a situation.
But, the authority of consent is systematically abused in traditional Indian marriage. In India where arranged, endogamous marriages are still a massive part of the social fabric, and a sure-shot signifier of social acceptance, the meaning of consent pertaining to individual autonomy and the right to form informed decisions is diluted down to just mean implied consent.
For Indian women, it holds especially true. In many families, if you are 22-years-old it is implied that you must be married off. Most women who are married this way have little to no contact or information about the men they are marrying. There is no discussion on each other’s boundaries and demarcations. Consent to the relationship and each other is expected to ‘blossom’ with time and habit. Marriage itself is understood as consent.
But as more women are increasingly deciding to marry of their own accord to people they have chosen, why the opposition? What really bothers the government?
With access to education, the internet, and diverse, inclusive spaces, young women and men understand the intricacies of making their own decisions and just how futile it is to confine to some frigid custom of absolute endogamy while choosing their life partner. They are encouraged to look beyond the criterion of religion, caste, and age that ensure implied consent and look for compatibility, and economic stability, that affirm informed consent.
Informed consent is what powerful Hindu fundamentalist groups today like the BJP, RSS, VHP, and the Karni Sena have perennially attempted to squash. And they do so not as a strategic, well thought out ploy but because it is simply what is built into their fabric. It is what they stand for. For a Hindu fundamentalist group, the priority is and perhaps always will be to preserve the ‘purity’ and propagation of their own religion. This is what they know, so why do we even expect any better?
Under the BJP’s reign, human curiosity, propensity for knowledge and the necessity of dissent have unceremoniously become acts of rebellion.
You see, the government is trying to usurp the institution of marriage because their monopoly of the Hindu is one they cannot afford to lose. It happens everywhere. Governments infringe upon citizen’s bodies, minds and autonomies to first, establish clearly the level of control. Second, polarise the people. Third and subsequent, to retain power. It happens in the US with their abortion laws, it happened in Nazi Germany with Hitler banning German-Jew marriages.
And so, the implication is clear. For the BJP, Muslims are still foreigners, still uninvited, and still employing savagery to ‘invade’ Hindu women. And Hindu women, on the other hand, are tacit symbols of ancestral honour – still implicitly consenting, still uneducated, still mere instruments of proliferation.
I was born into a Hindu family. Through a decision entirely personal and informed, I have chosen to follow Christianity. My partner, on the other hand, has been Muslim his entire life. Ours is a relationship of communication, respect and absolute trust; one we have nourished from adolescent frivolity and infatuation to a life long companionship. We are one of so many.
We are young people with considerable privilege economically and socially but this Bill triggers the violence our identities have inherently come to cause. They propel us to operate on fear, over aspects of our identities, personalities, actions and behaviours we should not have to apologise for. And this is not new, as LGBTQ+ couples have been dealing with the same for decades.
But, what the government fails to understand is that cracking down on interfaith couples, on dissenters, and on journalists – all of which essentially attempts to criminalise personal choice – has not, cannot, and will not deter people from doing it anyway. Because love is an ‘ideal’, just like democracy. In the interiors of India where we do not perhaps find informed consent in the way we have come to understand it here, young men and women are still courageous enough to love. And to find it themselves, regardless of their identities and it’s consequences.
If love truly is a revolution, then the Love Jihad Bill, if anything, will make the right to love and marry of your own accord an elaborate exercise in democracy. And there is absolutely nothing more glorious, more hopeful, and more patriotic than this.