India's Supreme Court building in New Delhi. Photo: AFP

There has always been a controversy in Indian society about inter-religious marriages, especially when it is between Hindus and Muslims. On January 6, a hearing was held in the Supreme Court on a petition challenging “love jihad” laws in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand against religious conversions for marriage.

A bench consisting of Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde, Justice A S Bopanna and Justice V Ramasubramanian, while hearing the petition by Delhi-based advocate Pradeep Kumar Yadav for petitioner Vishal Thakre and the Mumbai-based non-governmental organization Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), refused an immediate stay on the provisions of those laws that require pre-conversion permission for the inter-religious marriage from a district magistrate.

The Supreme Court will now examine the constitutionality of the laws. The court issued a notice to the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to that effect.  

The petitioners say that this law can be misused to implicate anyone falsely. Lawyer Chandra Uday Singh, appearing for the CJP, said mandating prior permission for conversion to facilitate a marriage is “oppressive.” He told the court that after the implementation of the law, UP police had arrested many innocents.

However, at the beginning of the hearing, the bench asked the petitioners to go to the High Courts of the states in question. At the same time, Indian Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the court that the Allahabad High Court was already hearing the petition challenging the law.

On February 4, 2020, the federal minister of state for home affairs, G Kishan Reddy, told the upper house of Parliament (Lok Sabha) that the term “love jihad” is not defined under existing laws. Also, he told Parliament that no matter related to this had come to the notice of federal agencies. Reddy said Article 25 of the constitution gives freedom to accept, follow, and propagate any religion.

The Religious Freedom Act of 2018 is applicable in Uttarakhand. Under this, there are provisions against forcible conversion for marriage with false promise, deceit, fraud, force, or any other effect.

Even though the central government says that “love jihad” is not defined in law, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, ministers, and governments have taken a strong stand against inter-religious love and weddings in the recent past. Such people have been accused of creating an atmosphere of hate in society. At the same time, BJP-ruled state governments have been enacting strict laws against forced conversions.

Recently, there was a lot of controversy over an advertisement by the jewelry brand Tanishq, which showed how Indian society has split. In such a situation, troubles have increased for those people who have chosen a life partner outside of their own religion. 

Tanishq’s advertisement contextualized an inter-religious marriage and showed how a caring Muslim mother-in-law respected her Hindu daughter-in-law’s religious rituals. But there was so much opposition to the ad that Tanishq had to withdraw it.

This was not the first such dispute. But it has again raised the question of the acceptance of inter-religious marriages, especially in a country where religious tension has steadily increased in recent years.

On November 27, Uttar Pradesh’s governor approved the “Prohibition of Unlawful Religion Prohibition Ordinance 2020,” after which it became law.

In this new law, there is a provision for 10 years in prison if the accused is convicted of cheating or forcibly converting someone for marriage. The UP government argues that the purpose of this law is to protect women, but critics call it an encroachment of the right to privacy and freedom of religion under Article 21 and Article 25 of the constitution.

Within a month of the anti-conversion law being implemented in Uttar Pradesh, police registered 14 cases under it. The police arrested 51 people, and jailed 49. In these cases, 13 cases are allegedly related to Hindu women and it is alleged that they were forced to accept Islam. The woman herself is the complainant in only two cases.

Critics of the law enacted in Uttar Pradesh say that it is a violation of fundamental rights such as personal freedom, privacy, and human dignity. A petition has been filed in the Allahabad High Court to challenge this law.

Earlier, the Allahabad High Court allowed a young woman in an inter-religious marriage to remain with her husband. The High Court said, “The woman wants to live with her husband and she is free to live without any third-party intervention.”

A law was enacted in the BJP-ruled state of Madhya Pradesh last month on so-called “love jihad.” Karnataka, Haryana and Assam have decided to enact similar laws to prevent inter-religious marriage.

The BJP-led Assam government has expressed deep concern over the growing trend of marrying fraudulently in the state.

The state’s Finance, Health and Family Welfare Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has said, “A new trend is rising in Assam. Many Muslim boys create fake Facebook IDs with Hindu names and post pictures in which they would be standing near the temple.” When a girl marries such boys, she later learns that the boy belongs to another religion. This relationship is based on lies and betrayal and cannot be given social recognition, he said.

Sarma says the government is not against people marrying someone of a different religion, but for this the mutual consent of both the parties is necessary. “We will take strict action against any such marriage done by deception,” he said. 

Another BJP-led cabinet, that of Madhya Pradesh, approved the “Religious Freedom Ordinance 2020” on December 29. According to that law, a maximum punishment of 10 years and a fine of 100,000 rupees (about US$1,360) may be levied against those who forcefully convert someone they wish to marry.

According to the ordinance, in Madhya Pradesh, a person who commits proselytization, intimidation, or any other fraudulent conversion or attempts or conspires to do so shall be punishable with imprisonment for five years and a fine of not less than 25,000 rupees. At the same time, UP has approved a penalty of 15,000 rupees for this, but there is a provision of punishment for a maximum of five years.

In Himachal Pradesh, since 2007, a law has been in force making religious conversion by force or allurement a punishable offense. Recently, the new anti-conversion law was enacted. When the Congress government brought such a law in 2012, the Himachal Pradesh High Court declared it unconstitutional and a violation of fundamental rights.

Rohit Dhyani is a journalist and professional documentary filmmaker. Follow him on Twitter: @RohitDhyani