In a rural classroom in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, Annurag Dwivedi Annu is teaching teenage girls a lesson they’ll never forget. It’s not sexual predators he’s warning them about. It’s Muslim men.
“There are a lot of cases where they’ll blackmail girls like you. They take compromising photos of you. In the end, you’ll become suicidal. And those guys? When you’re gone, they chase someone else,” Annu said in the classroom.
“You must have heard of all kinds of Jihad by now,” continues the school’s principal Harshvardhan Singh. “But maybe you’re learning about ‘Love Jihad’ for the first time.”
Singh and Annu are middle aged men, who’ve organized this special lecture because they feel it's their “sacred duty” as devout members of a Hindu nationalist movement. They believe Muslim men are being trained and paid to lure Hindu women into marriage and childbirth. It’s a conspiracy they call “Love Jihad,” and they say it’s designed to convert India into an Islamic nation.
“They are corrupting our sisters and separating them from our community,” Singh told his students.
“If you see a sister from our family fall into this trap, you have to stop them. If you come to us, we’ll smash the skulls of these degenerates.”
This fear of India becoming an Islamic country is unfounded. Hindus make up nearly 80 percent of the population, while only around 14 percent are Muslim. Still, Singh and other Hindu fundamentalists are adamant that the threat is real.
He is the regional vice president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing Hindu group that vowed to put an end to “Love Jihad” in grassroots communities.
Once considered a fringe organisation, the VHP has risen to prominence under prime minister Narendra Modi. It’s an offshoot of the country’s largest Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, which has close ties to Modi, and key members of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Critics have accused Modi’s government of undermining India’s secular roots and tacitly supporting Hindu fundamentalists like Singh and the VHP as they pursue anti-Muslim conspiracies like “Love Jihad.”
There is no evidence to suggest that Muslims are tricking and forcibly converting Hindu women, but this hasn’t stopped this conspiracy theory from spreading across the country. Some states have even passed laws that target so-called “Love Jihadis.”
In November 2020, Singh’s homeland of Uttar Pradesh—India’s most populous state—passed an ordinance against forced religious conversions. A person found guilty could be fined and imprisoned for up to 10 years.
The law doesn’t target any particular community, but in the month after it was introduced over 90% of the cases involved the prosecution of Muslim men.
Singh said he and other members of the VHP are working closely with police to stop these interfaith marriages, and arrange Hindu weddings for the “rescued” women.
VICE News attended a wedding that Singh and his group had arranged between a Hindu man and woman, after forcibly separating her from her Muslim boyfriend.
“Our workers went out and caught him. Then the police arrested him,” Singh said. “Each month we’re doing at least one wedding for these girls.”
It’s a tactic that has been condemned by women’s rights advocates as communal and deeply sexist.
“Who has given you the right to decide about a girl’s choices?” said Dr. Ranjana Kumari, who has been fighting for gender equality since the 1970s.
“If some girl is wanting to convert herself and get married to someone she loves, then it is her right over her own body, her own decisions. The constitution gives her the right.”
But Singh is unmoved by his critics. He believes it’s his sacred duty to fight the “Love Jihad,” and keep India a Hindu-majority country.
“Each Muslim living in this country was historically a Hindu. So we appeal to them,” he said.
“Start calling yourselves Hindus. If not today, you’ll have to say it tomorrow.”
The video was broadcast on VICE News Tonight, on October 19, 2021 and was produced by Ahmer Khan and edited by Jose Flores.