Neither family was pleased when a young Indian Muslim man I knew married a college friend, who was Hindu. Both of them were brilliant students. The boy’s side was especially outraged by his cheeky retort when they asked how soon the bride would convert to Islam.
“When I convert to Hinduism!” he answered nonchalantly, leaving them aghast.
My friend’s courageous defiance came to mind last week when the newspapers reported the strident voice of religious orthodoxy emerging from Assam whose chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, warned Assamese youths not to “cross the lakhsman rekha” by marrying girls from another faith. As if the ethnic conflagration in nearby Manipur were not bad enough, his call against what the Bharatiya Janata Party denounces as “love jihad” came within days of reports of a Hindu woman in Assam’s Golaghat district being killed, allegedly by her Muslim husband. The murder report may or may not be true.
But Mr Sarma’s announcement took me aback. Assam is one of the most demographically diverse states in our richly pluralist nation. It includes descendants of ancient Thais, people from China’s Guanxi region, and Myanmarese. Yet, instead of rejecting the tragic bigotry of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, whose macabre end was at least redeemed by the grieving Montague and Capulet clans at last agreeing to end their ancient vendetta, here was Assam’s chief executive unashamedly urging the Assamese to retreat into the darkness of a monocultural ghetto. When the Congress chief, Bhupen Bora, had the temerity to advise him “not to make inter-community marriages an issue in the modern age”, Mr Sarma roundly warned him that he could be arrested for “hurting religious sentiments”.
Perhaps the best way of responding to such archaic ignorance is to just ignore it. But India is not enlightened Britain, where racial discrimination automatically withered when the government not only passed liberal new laws but also effectively enforced them. Ours is a society that lives by traditions that are often at conflict with current laws and certainly with our brave boasts of being a modern “digital” society that will soon be the world’s third-largest economy. It did not need the Pew Research Centre to tell us that most Indians want their wards (and even neighbours) to marry within their own religion. But a Pew survey did confirm that roughly two-thirds of Hindus want to prevent their women from marrying outside their faith. Apparently, even more Indian
Muslims feel the same way about their daughters and sisters.
Most marriages are still arranged in India. The deadly grip of caste may have been loosened but has not been thrown off. Society is static in many ways.
Newspaper pictures of our leaders performing havans and pujas in fancy attire reveal the extent to which their thinking is a prisoner of the superstitious past.
Our astronauts may reach for the Moon but it has repeatedly been demonstrated that passenger trains can be involved in fatal collisions. India makes vaccines for the world but many Indians don’t have access to potable drinking water.
Indians constitute the world’s biggest diaspora because India cannot provide them with gainful employment at home.
No attempt is made any longer to practise birth control. Just as illiterate voters identify political parties by their symbols, the unlettered masses follow the example set by their betters. Rajas and maharajas fulfilled that role in the past; now that function has been taken over by elected legislators. They have power and money and lead the rest.
So, when those in authority warn that the cow is sacred but in danger of being abused by the ungodly, the many who want to be counted as loyal at once claim to detect episodes involving the meat of the sacred animal. When the powerful whisper that the sinister threat of “love jihad” lurks in the shadows, the multitude rush to lynch youths who are blamed for runaway couples. Fears of “love jihad” might partly explain the reported call by Sadhvi Deva Thakur, vice-president of the All-India Hindu Mahasabha, that “the Centre will have to impose emergency, and Muslims and Christians will have to be forced to undergo sterilisation so
that they can’t increase their numbers”. Pankaj Tiwari of the Mahasabha’s Lucknow branch endorsed her solution. “We need to keep the Muslim population in check. Otherwise, they reproduce and it puts a strain on India’s health and education systems. That’s why we’re working to stop inter-faith marriages and conversions.”
Much of this may appear farcical but we know that the sense of victimhood nursed by majorities with a minority’s persecution complex is a dangerous social phenomenon. Encouraged by the Gyanvapi Masjid controversy in Varanasi, another Mahasabha worthy suggested that the Taj Mahal, India’s best-known tourist destination and a Unesco World Heritage site, should be demolished, presumably because it is a Muslim monument.
It can be no one’s case that the State should actively promote inter-faith matrimony as a means of integration. Such interference in the private lives of citizens would be strongly resented and might lead to violent resistance. Some might even argue that legislation to protect a bride or groom from being coerced to convert to the new spouse’s religion -- chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh set the ball rolling in this respect -- may serve a purpose if it is honestly and impartially enforced. Section 13 of the Hindu Marriage Act already provided grounds for divorce if one spouse converts to a different religion. But it has to be a genuine conversion and not a device for bigamous unions.
That can come about only when the overall climate is not vitiated by fear and suspicion. There are no easy steps to that idyll. But it would mark a beginning if Manipur’s chief minister, Nongthombam Biren Singh, were firmly told that Kuki-Zos and Meteis are equal members of the great Indian nation and must be treated at par. The ultimate test of nationhood will lie in how New Delhi tackles the bigger and crucial question of Hindu-Muslim relations.
Lingering memories of the TV image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi rejecting a Muslim’s goodwill gift of a cap and scarf may not suggest that the outcome of that test can be taken for granted. It may be revealing in this context that the now no longer young Muslim-Hindu couple I mentioned at the outset decided that their future was best ensured by emigration. Their chosen abode is now the beneficiary of their brilliance.