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Love, sex and religion in India

Wednesday 4 November 2009, by siawi2


Herald, 30 October 2009

When it comes to love and sex, communal politics acquires a particularly vicious and misogynistic edge, says Vidyadhar Gadgil

Love conquers all – or so Bollywood would have us believe. Bollywood is adept at resolving complex social issues through simplistic solutions, deploying the alleged power of love to break social barriers. Class contradictions are resolved in one stroke in film after film when the poor boy marries the rich girl, or vice-versa. Not satisfied with solving the problem of class conflict through these means, Bollywood scriptwriters have been busy tackling issues like regionalism and, occasionally, caste, with the tried and trusted deus ex machina of love. The romantic couple may not always live happily ever after, but love itself does triumph, with its chastened opponents realising the folly of their ways as they sombrely contemplate the corpses of the lovers in the closing scene.

But even Bollywood is chary of storming certain bastions with the battering ram of love, and there are hardly any films which portray cross-religion love. Probably the only mainstream film of recent times which did this was Mani Ratnam’s ‘Bombay’, though even here one wonders whether the film-maker would have dared to do a gender switch, with a Muslim hero and a Hindu heroine. Of course, Bollywood does recognise that there is a problem here, but the means to bridge the religious divide are scenes with Amar, Akbar and Anthony lying side by side donating blood, with images of a temple, mosque and church floating in the background. Rather tamely, if wisely, Amar, Akbar and Anthony all romance and marry heroines from their own religions, leaving this final Laxman Rekha intact.

By recognising this boundary for love, Bollywood is only reflecting the prejudices of the society that consumes its products. A cursory glance at the newspapers will show case after case where there is strong opposition, often escalating into violence, to marriage across religious barriers. Honour killings of women who have violated this norm are reported all too frequently. During the Gujarat communal violence of 2002, cross-community couples were especial targets. Recently, from Kashmir there were reports about protests over cross-community marriages. With all Kashmir’s problems between its religious communities, Sikh community leader Jagmohan Singh Raina zeroes in on this issue as the one that has “adversely affected the long-cherished brotherhood between the Valley’s communities,” a sentiment echoed by his counterparts on the other side of the religious divide.

What are the factors behind this kind of antediluvian prejudice? One common explanation is the feudal nature of Indian society, which puts notions of family and community purity above all else, and punishes transgressors viciously. But this is at best a partial explanation. What about Rizwanur Rehman and Priyanka Todi, a couple that lived in the midst of a capitalist society in Kolkata, in a state run by a party that flaunts its secular credentials? If Rizwanur Rehman had been a poor Hindu computer engineer, his super-rich prospective father-in-law may not have been particularly thrilled, but it is unlikely that Rizwanur would have ended up dead.
The prejudice on this issue is essentially rooted in the fact that women are treated in Indian society as chattels – of their parents and families first, then of their husbands, and ultimately of the community. When a woman marries outside her religious community, she is viewed as property that has been expropriated by a competing group, and the inevitable backlash follows. When a man marries outside his community, this may not meet with approval, but there is tacit support because he is at one level seen as a conquering hero, who has dared to grab property belonging to rivals. It is the woman who is killed by members of her own community; the man may have to face the wrath of the woman’s community, but his own will protect him.

Communal battles have long been fought over the bodies of women, as we see in episode after episode of communal violence. The communal violence of Partition, when thousands of women on both sides of the border were abducted and subjected to sexual violence, was a stark reminder of the status of women as property, chillingly documented in the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto.

The latest case of this kind of thinking is probably the most ludicrous, but also particularly worrisome, because it combines deep-rooted intolerance with politically organised communalism, resulting in a potent mix in which even the weirdest claims acquire a reality of their own. In February 2009, a Malayalam daily, Kerala Kaumudi, carried a report claiming the existence of a jihadi organisation which uses young Muslim men to get Hindu girls to fall in love with them and convince them to convert to Islam. The report did not excite much interest, except among fundamentalist organisations like the VHP and Bajrang Dal, which launched a shrill campaign against the ‘love jihad’ (alternatively described as ‘Romeo Jihad’). The campaign was particularly vociferous in Kerala and Karnataka.

One could be forgiven for dismissing the whole brouhaha as an interesting example of the sociopathology of the sexual insecurities of Indian males, and its linkages with the sexual politics of religious fundamentalism – a theme that has been explored in Anand Patwardhan’s film ‘In the Name of God’. But in September 2009, the situation acquired a surreal aspect, when the Indian judicial system got involved. On 30 November, the Kerala High Court directed the Kerala Police and Union Home Ministry to probe the alleged ‘love jihad’. This was in response to the claims by the families of a Hindu and a Christian woman, who married their Muslim classmates in a Pathanamthitta college and converted to Islam. On 22 October the Kerala DGP submitted a report to the court which stated that there was no evidence for any organisation called ‘love jihad’ functioning in Kerala so far. But the High Court termed the report as “contradictory” and has now asked for submissions from each of the state’s 14 district police superintendents on the matter!

In this theatre of the absurd, the latest players are the judges of the Karnataka High Court. On 21 October, during hearing of a habeas corpus petition by C Selvaraj – who claimed that his daughter Siljaraj had eloped with a Muslim youth to Kerala – the judges ordered that the CID conduct a probe into ‘love jihad’. Siljaraj, who was produced before the court by police, told the judges that she had married Aksar of Kannur in Kerala of her own free will, and was undergoing religious training after getting converted to Islam.

But the free will of an adult woman appears to be of less importance, the Constitution of India notwithstanding, than bogeys about holy wars being waged using the weapon of love. The judges directed her to stay with her parents till the police complete the investigations. Magnanimously, the court also said that since she was an adult, if it was found to be a ‘bonafide’ love marriage, she could go back to Aksar. One wonders if the police will now be devising and conducting tests for the genuineness of love.

The whole ‘love jihad’ episode shows once again how the first victims of communalism are women. It also demonstrates the extent to which communal mindsets have infiltrated the system, with alleged fundamentalist conspiracies, however bizarre, being given more value than the Constitutional rights of an adult woman. This is clearly a divide which even an accomplished matchmaker like Bollywood is going to find tough to bridge.

source :
South Asia Citizens Wire | October 19 - November 4, 2009 | Dispatch No. 2662 - Year 12 running