Before I dive in, let me begin with a simple story.
There was once a local bistro at the heart of the town which had the fortune of serving a perpetual crowd of diners at all hours. Though there were many big chains with better food options in the town, the local residents of the town got so accustomed to the warm atmosphere and the cheerful woman who tended to the customers that they never gave a thought to visit the other delis. Envious of the growing popularity of the waitress, the owner unthinkingly, in a fit of jealousy decided to mess up some orders of the woman.
Over the coming days, he continued to create troubles for the poor employee till one day, he declared that he had to fire her. Feeling the animosity, the owner of the bistro had for the woman adored, people started to think twice before going there. Even as the sales dipped; however, the owner revelled in the perverse pleasure he got from ousting the waitress and being in charge of the little kingdom his bistro was.
No detail of the story I just narrated made any sense but well, hatred is like that. Rarely does it make sense.
The same is the story of the average Indian Hindu’s love for hating a fellow Indian Muslim. The tragic story of the envious owner of the bistro is the story of Indians taking pride in the “unity in diversity” principle that constitutes the cultural fabric of India, and then going on to tear the seams of the same fabric. I would not attempt to shroud the fact that Indians ever cohabited in a space of inter-religious and inter-caste harmony. Communal tensions were always present, and so was the dominance of the upper-caste Hindus over the lower-castes, of the Hindus over Muslims and in events, of hatred when the constitutional principles of ‘fraternity’ were made a mockery of, the minorities suffered far deeper wounds.
However, it is only recently that these stories of communal frenzy keeping people from different faiths to cherish marital bliss not far from our town would not be so common after all. These few incidents of communal hatred in the name of ‘love jihad‘ would have gained the legitimacy of law. Under the regime of a Hindu nationalist government that openly advocates conservative ideologies and beliefs, this was already foreseen by most of us. While the right-wingers had hoped for it, the leftists and the minorities had expected it, fearful of the dark labyrinth of future that lied ahead of us.
The recent Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, 2020 (The law makes conversion non-bailable with up to 10 years of jail time if undertaken unlawfully and requires that religious conversions for marriage in Uttar Pradesh to be approved by a district magistrate) is only a manifestation of decades of poisoning Hindus with myths on Islam and its followers, who were easily swept with jingoism. The ambiguous concept of ‘love jihad’ itself is cloaked with lies stemming from xenophobia—a fear of that unknown, unidentified enemy conjured up on the basis of misconceptions and prejudice against the community (in this case, the Muslims).
Amidst these despairing times where one can only dread the possibility of falling in love with a person from a faith or caste different from us, swooped in the journalist couple Priya Ramani and Samar Halarnkar along with their fellow journalist friend Niloufer Venkatraman with their baby—India Love Project. India Love Project was launched in October “as a chronicle of love outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity and gender” that has now given birth to a family of over 31.5 thousand followers (as on January 11, 2020) who take delight in reading, sharing and taking inspiration and courage from these annals of love fraught with hurdles and its eventual victory over prejudice.
Within a month the small account on Instagram garnered tonnes of love that reflected in its consistently growing followers (over 22 thousand followers by November!). Since then, the account has been featured in many national dailies, digital media outlets and also earned its space in Hindustan Times as the Brunch Social Media Star of the Week. Staying true to their Instagram bio—”Love and marriage outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity and gender“, ILP has been bringing to us stories of love breaking the barriers of communal hatred every day.
So, how did the idea of promoting the ideal of love diluting boundaries of caste, class and gender materialise into India Love Project?
Though these three advocates of free love transcending all self-forged chains of hostility were mulling over the concept of starting something like ILP, the trigger came when a Tanishq advertisement sparked off a huge controversy merely because it showed a Muslim woman arranging an extravagant baby shower for her pregnant daughter-in-law—a Hindu woman. The advertisement was beautifully crafted to introduce Tanishq’s newest jewellery line ‘Ekatvam—the beauty of oneness’ and its description on YouTube read,
“She is married into a family that loves her like their own child. Only for her, they go out of their way to celebrate an occasion that they usually don’t. A beautiful confluence of two different religions, traditions and cultures.”
Unfortunately, the advertisement had to be taken down amidst the vicious backlash and hatred it received from right-wing trolls and Hindu extremists. India Love Project that first started off as a photo-series celebrating inter-faith and inter-caste relationships and marriages still has the photo from the ad of the woman taking her daughter-in-law into an embrace as its profile picture.
Samar Halarnkar, the editor of IndiaSpend (a data analysis website and fact-checker) and of Article 14 (a project that tracks misuse of the law), talking about the need of such stories being told and the significance of India Love Project says,
“We have always felt very strongly about the blatantly fake narratives and politically motivated hate-mongering rising around inter-faith love marriages in India. We knew this was false, it was wrong and that campaigns like so-called ‘love jihad’ were merely excuses to snatch away agency from women, strengthen the hold of patriarchy and perpetuate stereotypes and lies. A year ago, as the lies of ‘love jihad’ exacerbated, we imagined a place where couples who pushed the boundaries of faith, caste, gender and other shackles could share their stories, inspire others like them and simply make us all feel good about love. Love jihad has now been weaponised and normalised. At least five state governments have declared their intention to bring in laws to stop it (UP already has), although how this will be legally or constitutionally valid is unclear. Last year, the government itself told parliament that no such term exists and no such cases have come to attention. So, what better way to counter something that is fake with something that is real. Nothing could be more real than the stories on ILP.“
Beyond bringing the readers a warm feeling that envelopes them as they swipe through photographs of couples who had to storm through the rough weathers to see the light of the day, making successful stories of inter-religion and inter-caste love public helps to break the current communal narrative vilifying Muslims as infiltrators “taking away” women from the Hindu community. Even as communal hatred is expected to earn the backing of law, as India’s progressive youth “meet and mingle in educational institutions and at the workplace, the opportunities for such relationships are growing.“
According to Harlankar, however powerful the forces of divisiveness be, “no government can turn the tide.”
Scrolling down the archives of courageous love, I remember Dr. BR Ambedkar who espoused the belief that inter-caste marriages would be the first step towards breaking caste hierarchies. He asserted that marriage and love between people of different castes could be the only factor that has the potential to dissolve the rigid caste boundaries, (upheld by upper-caste families while looking for “suitable” partners for their children) as the social ban on intermarriage is “the most fundamental idea on which the whole fabric of caste is built up.”
Harlankar feels that, “There is still a long, long way to go as there is widespread resistance to these unions and therefore, a majority of marriages in India are still within the caste.“
According to a 2016 survey, Social Attitudes Research for India (SARI), conducted across Delhi, Mumbai, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan discovered that the majority of respondents were opposed to inter-caste and inter-religious marriages and even desired legislations against such weddings.
Looking at the brighter side of things however, testimonies of couples who still overcame these differences that are flooding into India Love Project is a proof of the fact that “a breakdown of caste and religious hierarchies is underway, although far slower than Dr BR Ambedkar might have wanted.” Sharing anecdotes of their struggles and eventual success in love on the platform offered by ILP allows couples to have power over their own story and inspires others to resist against conservatives.
Co-founder of ILP and partner of Harlankar, journalist Priya Ramani feels the need to expand the horizon and include queer love stories as well, as the acceptance for LGBTQ marriages is even lesser. Many queer and transgender people do not even trust their families with knowing their sexual and/or gender identities, let alone hope for them to accept who they love and choose to marry or live with.
“In a country increasingly fractured by religion and fake news related to inter-faith love, we see India Love Project as an attempt at unity. ILP carries first-person accounts—or narratives from offspring–of couples who surmount these hurdles, revealing to us the possibilities of love without traditional straightjackets, love that can serve as a beacon of hope to others in the same situation. Inter-faith love is relatively rare in India. About 90% of marriages are within the caste, and perhaps only 2.2% of all marriages, by this estimate (there is no accurate data) are interfaith. But these are still large numbers, and such marriages are more prevalent than we imagine. I think ILP can inspire, encourage and guide those who choose this path,” says Samar Harlankar stressing on the need for supporting unions like these, especially of people hailing from humble backgrounds with lesser resources to fight their families.
Moving ahead from just sharing stories, the India Love Project team is now focusing on providing additional assistance such as legal aid and counselling to couples who share their stories with them.
“We have had messages from couples who are not yet hitched and are facing resistance. They appear to be under stress and we have connected a couple with a group that counsels such couples. We are also trying to connect those who require legal assistance with counsellors,” Mr Halarnkar said.
Further, to ensure that the privacy of the couple is protected, due permission is taken from them before sharing their stories and photographs. However, the founders delight in the fact that these couples are more often than not feel thrilled at the opportunity of sharing their stories and do not shy from confiding in the world their saga of love and struggles.
Such is the exceptional story of Lata Singh and Bhrama Nand Gupta who fought against all odds for love. Their union gave India the landmark judgement in the case of Lata Singh Vs. State of U.P. where the Supreme Court made clear that any adult citizen is free to marry whoever they love and ruled that “intercaste marriages are in fact in the national interest as they will result in destroying the caste system.”
A child born out of an interfaith marriage herself, co-founder Niloufer Venkatraman recounts how she was called a ‘mongrel’ by her school teacher in her childhood. Braving resistance from their family members, her Parsi mother, Bakhtawar Master and her Hindu-Tamilian father, S. Venkatraman, got married under the Special Marriage Act. Venkatraman reminisces how her parents gave their children Parsi first names and a Tamilian last name saying that they should be “…proud of both identities.” A step ahead of their times as they were, they refrained from attending any wedding where dowry was taken and given and continued to support other inter-faith marriages like theirs too.
People view marriage as a union between two souls in love, a rather simple affair. Unfortunately, in India where inequalities of every kind plague the society, marriages outside one’s caste and religion become a matter of family ‘honour’, the brunt of which is often put on women’s shoulders. Regressive notions of caste and race “purity” force people to live in marriages devoid of love with persons they share no compatibility with.
As Dr. BR Ambedkar, a champion of equality and fraternity wrote in his most popular work Annihilation of Caste,
“Where society is already well knit by other ties, marriage is an ordinary incident of life. But where society is cut asunder, marriage as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity.”
- Dynamics of inter-religious and inter-caste marriages in India, Kumudin Das, K. C. Das, T. K. Roy and P. K. Tripathy
- Annihilation of Caste, Dr B.R. Ambedkar