Love and Moral Panic in India


A couple kissing inside a police van while they were being taken away by the police from the protest site in Kochi.

In August 2013, a 22-year-old Hindu woman in Meerut, a town India’s Uttar Pradesh (UP) state, claimed she had been abducted, gang-raped, and forcibly converted to Islam. Right-wing Hindu groups held her up as an example of their campaign against love-jihad, or the alleged rape of Hindu girls by Muslim men to force them into marriage and convert them to Islam.

With a national election expected in April 2014, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigning in UP, the timing of the Meerut case was significant. It spurred Hindu-Muslim violence in UP in August and September 2013. Around 60 people were killed, 93 injured, and tens of thousands displaced (link opens PDF), many permanently. In the May 2014 election, the BJP made substantial gains not just in UP but nationwide, and its candidate, Narendra Modi, became India’s Prime Minister.

Less than five months into Modi’s tenure, the Meerut woman revealed that the “love-jihad” was in fact a love story. She informed the police that she had not been abducted or gang-raped, but had eloped with a Muslim man. Fearing that her family and society would harm her, she sought refuge in a women’s shelter.

Her dramatic volte face blew a huge hole through the BJP’s election campaign. But it would be naïve to conclude that the “love-jihad” rhetoric will now subside, or that the BJP is substantially weakened. To understand why, we must consider both sides of the hyphen.

The “jihad” part is significant in India’s largely Hindu nationalist, anti-Muslim, and often anti-western context. Prime Minister Modi, often portrayed as modern, forward-looking, and statesman-like has refused to apologize for the pogrom that occurred on his watch in 2002, in which around 1,000 Muslims were killed. Today, Modi enjoys rock-star status at home and among the Indian diaspora (many Indian-Americans, for instance, feel a connection because they share Modi’s Gujarati heritage). However, his party’s growing grassroots base in India consists overwhelmingly of ultra-conservative, often violent, Hindu groups, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Stirring Hindu-Muslim animosity has become a replicable and increasingly efficient political strategy for the BJP. This is, of course, not to deny that Muslims also contribute to growing communalism (in the South Asian context, “communalism” refers to Hindu-Muslim animosity) and violence.

But the other side of the hyphen – love – is perhaps more revealing. The threat is not just jihad; it is as vast and amorphous as love itself. At a recent public meeting on “love-jihad” in New Delhi, film maker Nakul Sawhney shared video footage of election campaigns in riot-affected UP. It showed how the BJP had made a concerted effort to woo khaps (councils of local caste patriarchs). Khaps have long regulated relationship choices in many villages by endorsing child marriage, sentencing women to be raped, murdering defiant couples and persecuting others. Khaps have no legal authority, and their methods are, of course, criminal. Sawhney said the BJP had wooed the khaps – hitherto unconcerned with anti-Muslim politics – to gain mass support for the election, and thus fused violent local patriarchy with its communal agenda.

The other speaker at the event, Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, added that if people were free to choose whom they marry, caste boundaries would be erased, and so would the power that maintained them. She likened the fear of this erasure to the Nazis’ fear of miscegenation. She also argued that the collusion of communalism and patriarchy was not confined to Hindus or Muslims. Two decades of economic liberalization in India had increasingly drawn women into the workforce. Their growing independence was a threat to patriarchy, and this has caused the violent backlash that seeks to keep women in a state of dependence and “protection”.

As another example of how love threatened the patriarchy, she noted that leaders of several faiths stood united in their support for Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era law that makes “unnatural” sexual acts illegal and thus makes all homosexual relationships criminal.

On November 2, a protest in Kerala state drew national attention to this fear of love. After a BJP youth group attacked a café where a couple was kissing, a handful of people organized #KissOfLove, a mass kissing event, in Kochi. The goal was to protest “moral policing” and demand the right to express love in public spaces.

Despite demands to ban the protest, the court refused to interfere with the November 2 protest (a legal precedent (PDF) has established that kissing in public is not illegal). Despite this, the protest did not take place, as its opponents reportedly outnumbered the would-be kissers and tried to attack them, and its organizers were arrested as a preventative measure. So although the court saw no reason to intervene, the vigilante “moral police” and the actual police closed ranks against the protest. Those arrested were not charged with any crime.

#KissOfLove did not go as planned, but there have been more such protests in quick succession. Love is becoming a political issue in India, where 46% of the population is 15 to 44 years old. Valentine’s Day – always a fraught occasion in India – is still months away, but it promises to be interesting.


(Photo credit: Josekutty Panackal/Manorama)