As a Hindu nationalist campaign forced an Indian jewellery brand to drop an ad depicting a marriage between a Muslim and a Hindu, a journalist couple in southern India decided to take action.
Armed with words and photos, Samar Halarnkar and Priya Ramani set up what they call the India Love Project on Facebook and Instagram, featuring stories of love across faiths and castes in the Hindu-majority country.
“We are getting so much love. We are drowning in it,” Halarnkar told VICE World News.
The couple was responding to a surging wave of hate against interfaith unions after the jewellery brand Tanishq made an ad featuring an interfaith marriage.
The ad showed a Muslim family organising a baby shower for their Hindu daughter-in-law. The jewellery range is called “ekatvam,” which means unity in Sanskrit language.
Critics of the ad said it promoted what they deride as “love jihad” – an Islamophobic conspiracy theory that Muslim men seduce and marry Hindu women with the sole purpose of converting them to Islam.
Marrying outside one’s religion or caste is prohibited in many conservative Indian families. The “love jihad” theory has given a disturbing connotation to such unions, particularly ones involving Muslim men and Hindu women.
After the ad aired in early October, opponents of interfaith marriages initiated a social media campaign to boycott the company, with some calling the ad “nauseating.”
Tanishq, owned by the Indian conglomerate Tatas, on Oct 13 said it pulled the commercial for the “well-being” of its employees, including salestaff.
Alarmed by the debacle, many interfaith couples have submitted their stories to the India Love Project.
“With the love jihad nonsense, they want to prove a point and counter the hate and bigotry directed at such unions,” said Halarnkar, based in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru.
The project was set up late last month by the couple and their friend Niloufer Venkatraman, an author and journalist.
“Love and marriage outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity, gender,” reads the description of their project’s social media pages.
The first story they carried was one of their own – that of Venkatraman’s Parsi mother and Hindu father.
Lata Singh married Brahma Nand 20 years ago against the will of her family. Photo courtesy of India Love Project
“Throughout their long partnership of 31 years, each followed their own religion and fervently supported other interfaith marriages and adoption,” Venkatraman wrote.
A new story is published every day and Halarnkar said there are many of them to be told.
One of the most dramatic stories they published is that of Lata Singh.
Twenty years ago, the woman eloped with Brahma Nand knowing that her family would not accept a man from a lower caste as her husband. Singh’s family sued, alleging that Nand had kidnapped her.
In 2006, while hearing the case, the Supreme Court of India ruled that “adult Indians could marry persons of their choice.” It was a vindication of sorts – but for Singh it came too late. Singh’s eldest brother, estranged from her because of whom she married, had died three years ago. She believes if he had lived a little longer, he would have come around. “I would have been able to go back to my childhood home. Now that will never happen,” she wrote.
In another post, Sadaf Chowdhary, a Muslim woman, narrated how her parents and those of her boyfriend, Yatin, a Hindu, worried about “losing” their child to another faith when they announced their relationship in 2017.
Maria Manjil, a Catholic, writes that her husband, Sandeep Jain, “had to wage the battle of his life” to convince his conservative Hindu parents. They now have a 16-year-daughter, Roshni. Photo courtesy of India Love Project.
They got married anyway the next year. As a gesture of respect for Yatin’s Hindu faith, Sadaf avoids eating non-vegetarian food on Tuesdays. Yatin, for his part, does not mention alcohol when he is with his in-laws. “Three years on, we couldn't be more integrated,” Sadaf wrote. “Every festival in our house is celebrated with equal fervor and religious sentiments of the elderly in the family are respected.”
As debate over “love jihad” intensified over the last month, officials of four Indian states led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, said they would formulate laws to punish supposed perpetrators of “love jihad.”
Narottam Mishra, home minister of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, said Monday that the state government was working to make a law that would impose five years’ imprisonment on violators.
The development disturbed the founders of India Love Project.
“At one point of time, it was just a term used by fringe groups,” Halarnkar said, referring to “love jihad.” “The right-wing Hindutva groups aided by the government have gradually normalised and weaponised this fake narrative. The objective is to demonise the minorities, particularly Muslims, and boost the idea of Hindu rashtra” – a Hindu nation.
There are no government statistics on interfaith and inter-caste marriages in India. The most widely cited data is from a 2005 survey, which put the number of interfaith marriages in India at roughly 2 percent.
Such unions have drawn opposition in the country and within families. In some cases, families have attacked or even killed couples for falling in love or trying to marry someone outside their communities. More than 300 people have died from “honour killings” across the country in the last five years, according to tallies by local newspapers.
The India Love Project allowed Halarnkar and co-founders to put a face on the statistics. Almost everyone who contributed to the project told them that they knew others who married outside their faith or caste, but some said that they were wary of publicising their relationships.
It took Zamrooda Khanday, a Kashmiri Muslim woman, and Rajnish Girdhar, a non-Kashmiri non-Muslim, about a year to convince both the set of parents. They will soon celebrate their 20th marriage anniversary. Photo courtesy of India Love Project.
While Halarnkar and Ramani had long thought of launching a resource centre for interfaith and inter-caste couples, the state governments’ push against “love jihad” was what finally prompted them to action.
“One big difference is that earlier, the state machinery was not involved in people’s marital decisions,” said Halarnkar.
In the last 10 years, investigative agencies in the southern Indian state of Kerala have probed multiple “love jihad” allegations only to find no evidence of coercion or forced conversion.
In August, police in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) launched investigations into more than a dozen such cases and found no credible evidence of coerced conversion.
Still, the “love jihad” theory has had backing from prominent politicians, including Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu nationalist monk and UP chief minister.
Unfazed by the official pressure, many couples have chosen to share their stories on the India Love Project. “These stories tell us that there is hope for love and togetherness in a country being riven by and normalising hate and division,” said Halarnkar.
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