Love jihad is an Islamophobic conspiracy theory made up by Hindu nationalist extremists in India. It falsely purports the existence of a systematic campaign by Muslim men to deceptively convert Hindu women to Islam by luring them into romantic relationships.
Conjured claims of a love jihad conspiracy theory are not relegated to India’s fringe. India’s most powerful forces, including the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and leading television news channels, are the most active promoters of this dangerous myth. Many legal cases have also emerged from false love jihad accusations. One even reached India’s Supreme Court. And now, BJP-run state governments in India are using the false pretext of love jihad to enact legislation to restrict religious conversions and interfaith marriages.
The love jihad conspiracy theory is one tool in a broader campaign by Hindutva or Hindu nationalist forces to transform India into a “Hindu rashtra”: an authoritarian, Hindu majoritarian state where Muslims and Christians are second-class citizens or social and political outcasts.
A Myth Rooted in Hysteria Over Women, Honor, and Demography
Marriage remains a family affair in India, where even today most are arranged and multigenerational households are the norm. Only five percent of marriages in India are between people of different castes. Interfaith marriages are even less common. Often, they are in defiance of the wishes of family elders. In such scenarios, couples generally opt to elope, rupturing family relations.
But the love jihad conspiracy theory involves more than the exploitation of Hindu social conservatism. It is expressly focused on marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women, not vice versa. And in doing so, it leverages patriarchal cultural norms in which women are seen as family property rather than autonomous individuals.
Though the term “love jihad” is relatively new, it leverages longstanding Hindu nationalist fear-mongering over Muslim demography, though Hindus currently make up around eighty percent of India’s population.
These themes of a purported Muslim threat to Hindu daughters and Hindu demographic dominance are reflected in a 1928 poem, titled Chand Musamanon ki Harkaten (The Antics of Some Muslims). Here’s an excerpt of the poem translated by historian Charu Gupta:
ˆMuslims are making new schemes to increase their population and to make people Muslims.
They roam with carts in cities and villages and take away women, who are put under the veil and made Muslim.”
The period in which this poem was written — the 1920s — featured the rapid deterioration of Hindu-Muslim relations under British colonial rule and the growth of Hindu nationalist organizations, such as the Hindu Sabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). According to Gupta, the Hindu Sabha organized a “volunteer corps of Hindu men in Banaras to prevent Hindu women from eloping with Muslim men.”
Similarly, Veer Savarkar, a 20th-century Hindu nationalist ideologue hailed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, justified the rape of Muslim women by Hindus, claiming that it was “a religious duty of every Muslim to kidnap and force into their religion, non-Muslim women” to increase the “Muslim population.”
Love Jihad: From Conspiracy Theory to Law
These patriarchal impulses are reflected in a more recent statement by Yogi Adityanath, the Hindu priest and vigilante group founder who rules India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. At a rally that took place years before he became the state’s chief minister, Adityanath proclaimed, “If [Muslims] take one Hindu girl, we’ll take 100 Muslim girls.”
Adityanath now serves as chief minister of a state with a population of over 200 million people. And he is taking steps to use the law to combat interfaith marriages and defend Hindu honor. This week, his government took steps to make religious conversions before or after an interfaith marriage subject to governmental approval. The proposed “Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion Bill 2020” requires prospective converts to submit an application to the district magistrate. And it criminalizes “interfaith marriages with the sole intention of changing a girl’s religion,” making the alleged offense punishable with a jail sentence of up to ten years. Similar laws are in place in other Indian states and have been drafted in several more, including Madhya Pradesh.
It remains to be seen whether the courts will declare unconstitutional legislation inspired by the love jihad conspiracy theory. In 2017, an Indian high court annulled the marriage between a Hindu woman convert to Islam and a Muslim man, alleging that the woman was brainwashed. That ruling was overturned by the Indian Supreme Court in 2018. But the judiciary, like other state institutions, has increasingly submitted to the BJP’s diktat, as demonstrated by last year’s ruling to grant to Hindus the entire site of a mosque destroyed by Hindu fanatics.
The BJP’s Permanent Campaign Against Muslims and Secularism
In all likelihood, irrespective of how India’s courts respond, the love jihad conspiracy theory is here to stay. It is an essential tool in the Hindu nationalist BJP’s war against secularism and its permanent campaign against Muslims. Tellingly, a month after India’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s “love jihad” ruling, India’s Times Now channel — which is closely aligned with the BJP — claimed that a “love jihad storm is on the horizon.”
The love jihad conspiracy theory is just one of many Islamophobic dog whistles that have become mainstream in India over the past decade. Hindu extremists regularly invent new anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, often appending the word “jihad” to otherwise normal activity, such as having children or buying a home, to paint them as dangerous and subversive when done by Muslims. These anti-Muslim dog-whistle phrases are used by top Indian news channels and spread on social media as well as communications platforms like WhatsApp by the BJP’s social media team, known as its “IT cell.”
As shown by the hashtag in the Times Now tweet below, Indian news channels create Islamophobic hashtags to mobilize their viewers as part of anti-Muslim campaigns. India’s mainstream media is an active radicalizer of the Hindu middle class.
Other Islamophobic conspiracy theories invented by the BJP and its parent organization, the RSS, include “bureaucracy jihad” (after Muslims performed well on a prestigious civil service exam) and “property jihad” (when Muslims purchase homes in predominantly Hindu areas). Hindu nationalists have also tried to make halal meat controversial.
The BJP gains electorally by creating a wedge between Hindus and Muslims, vilifying Muslims and creating a sense of Hindu victimhood. This is central to the party’s ethos and operations. And as the Indian economy falters, the BJP, its parent and affiliate organizations, and its fellow travelers in the Indian media, will continue to rely on Islamophobia to win in elections, dismantle India’s secular edifice, and transform the country into a “Hindu rashtra.”
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.