‘Number Of Hindu-Muslim Couples Seeking Help To Get Married Has Fallen. Such Is The Fear’

04 Jan 2023 18 min read  Share

Several Indian states have enacted laws to curb interfaith marriage, and Delhi-based non-profit Dhanak Of Humanity, which has helped over 5,000 couples of different faiths, castes and communities over a decade, says these laws could criminalise those aiding such couples. Co-founder Asif Iqbal told us the government and groups campaigning against the ‘love jihad’ trope do not want unions under a law that allows them to be married, while many states have not obeyed a 2018 Supreme Court order to set up a helpline and shelter homes for couples in love at risk of honour killings, violence by communal groups.

Asif Iqbal on a brief visit to Mumbai in December 2022/PHOTOGRAPH BY KAVITHA IYER

Mumbai: Through 2022, at least three states introduced new laws seeking to stop Hindu women from marrying non-Hindu men. 

The Haryana Prevention of Unlawful Conversion Of Religion Act, 2022, said one of its objectives was to counter instances, including of marriage, of “agenda to increase strength of their own religion”. 

Under the Karnataka Protection of Right To Freedom Of Religion Act, 2022, the burden of proof in contending that a conversion was not effected through “misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage” lies on the individual who prompted the conversion to occur. 

In Uttarakhand, the Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2022 amended a four-year-old law to make unlawful conversions a cognisable and non-bailable offence, punishable with a prison term of up to 10 years. It also made it mandatory to make an additional declaration after conversion of religion (within 60 days), in addition to the previous requirement of a declaration before the conversion. 

These laws added to existing state laws, including in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, a growing body of legislation that Hindutva organisations refer to as laws against love jihad, the trope that interfaith marriages of Hindu women are a conspiracy by Muslim men to lure and convert women of other faiths. 

Article 14 has reported  that this narrative was born in Kerala without any data to back it, and that these laws violate multiple courts’ reaffirmations of the constitutional right to choose a life partner, irrespective of religion, a fundamental right of consenting adults, intrinsic to the right to life, privacy and personal liberty.  

The latest state appearing to join the campaign against interfaith marriages was Maharashtra, which set up a “coordination panel” to track interfaith and inter-caste marriages, an apparent testing of the waters before introducing an anti-religious conversion bill. 

On 2 January 2023, a Supreme Court division bench of Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud and Justice P S Narasimha heard two public interest litigations (PILs) challenging the anti-conversion laws passed by state governments of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh that sought to prohibit religious conversion by marriage and mandated giving notice of conversion to state authorities. The bench adjourned the matter by two weeks seeking clarity on whether petitions are pending before high courts on the subject. 

Against this backdrop, Dhanak Of Humanity, a Delhi-based non-profit set up in 2005, offers interfaith couples safe spaces to live, working in participation with police and state institutions. 

Set up by Asif Iqbal, who himself struggled to convince his family when he was about to marry his Hindu partner, along with other interfaith couples who had a similar struggle, Dhanak’s experience of the atmosphere generated by state action against interfaith marriage is instructive—couples are so scared that the numbers of those who share their details with Dhanak’s helpline and seek a safe haven have fallen to one fifth, while compliance with a landmark 2018 Supreme Court verdict to, among other things, provide couples at risk of violence a state-run shelter home, remains poor. 

As more interfaith couples face violence and hate (see here, here, here, here and here), Iqbal said in an interview that Dhanak hopes to rope in elected representatives to join the campaign. Interfaith marriage has always been challenging in India, he said, but the discrimination and threats of violence now make the struggle to assist such couples more difficult than ever.   

Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve been working to support interfaith marriages in India long before the subject was so polarising. How have recent events altered things, in terms of what couples go through and in the work that you do?

The issue existed earlier too. In 2009, the word love jihad was used by a Kerala high court judge, but it wasn’t picked up in a big way.

Interfaith marriage has in fact been challenging right from the beginning. I read about an interfaith marriage in 1920 when religious groups created a ruckus. I’m meeting an 80-year-old couple later today, whose marriage was solemnised in 1969. It was challenging for them too, they say. 

The main difference now is that discrimination and reservations, not very obvious or vocal then, have become very, very obvious and vocal now. This is true not only of society and people, but also police and administration. (The judiciary has, however, been very helpful in this matter.) 

Policemen, marriage officers and others directly tell couples their marriage could end in a killing. When we take a couple to a police station seeking protection, police officers ask these kinds of questions: What if they kill you? What happens if they throw you out? Are you sure you want to go with him? 

Where  the girl is Muslim, things are not that difficult. Policemen themselves tell us, “Why don't we help them, we will do the kanyadaan.” 

Is it worse for young Muslim men marrying Hindu girls?

The moment it is a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl, even if they are bound by the  directions of the Supreme Court, officers do not shy away from passing a comment. Muslim girls face these comments too, but it is sharper for Muslim boys. In one case, when we took a couple for protection to the police station, they literally asked why we were bringing couples from all across India to them. “You are into love jihad, who is heading your organisation, he is a Muslim and obviously he will do this,” they said. It is all more intimidating when the girl is a Hindu.

Society was already polarised, but now organisations with political backing have got more strength, they have new laws. As a result, common people find that the thoughts they had been harbouring are justified.  People such as landlords refuse to give flats on rent to interfaith couples, whereas earlier they would only check if the couple are major, if they’re both earning, etc. That is no longer the case. It has become very, very difficult.

What are the challenges that people like you, who are trying to fight for the right to love and marry across communities and faiths, have to face?

First, we have seen a sharp decrease in the number of cases coming to us, indicative of a rising fear among interfaith couples.

For the last four or five years, we have started collecting and maintaining data of each case we take up. In 2017-18, we received almost 400 to 500 cases per year. Those asking for help were more than 1,000, but those who eventually shared their information were between 400 and 500.

During the current financial year, we have hardly touched 100 cases. This clearly shows the fear that couples are feeling, they are scared to approach an organisation working on this issue.

Two, we have to be very, very careful now because of the new laws. We could be penalised for helping a couple, even as an organisation,  even if there is no religious conversion. The fear for us is that the girl could become hostile under pressure from her family and give a statement against us. If the family manages to take her away, they could file a complaint against us that the boy was tutored by us, the girl was tutored. She could say we were the ones who told her to do this, who told her to convert, etc. 

That is the biggest challenge for us, particularly when the girl is from a dominant Hindu community, particularly from three states—Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and UP. 

We try to get protection from the high court when we see that a girl approaching us is from an upper class Hindu community, because we have to save ourselves. 

We have gone to court several times. It becomes difficult to manage funds because we have limited resources. Our only source of revenue is the membership fee, which is only Rs 1,200 a year collected from member couples, and even that is difficult to collect. There are some individual donations. 

Recently we have been dealing with four parallel cases, one each in UP and Bihar and two from Rajasthan. The couples have all come to Delhi for protection and marriage.  In two cases we have had to seek protection from the Jaipur and Lucknow high courts because there was an FIR, and we were seeking compliance with the Shakti Vahini judgement of the Supreme Court—mainly opening of shelter homes for couples seeking protection. 

We are taking this to different states. We find it is easier to approach courts with a live case rather than taking a public interest litigation seeking implementation of the Shakti Vahini judgement. 

The Maharashtra government has formed a coordination panel requiring interfaith couples to provide them with information about their situation.  What will be the impact of such a step on couples and on policy?  

This will further jeopardise the implementation of the directions given in the Shakti Vahini judgement. As per the direction, a 24-hour helpline is to be opened up, and shelter homes for couples. Only two states have it—Delhi and Haryana. Haryana has opened the special cell but other directions are still to be complied with.  

In Delhi they have linked the helpline with the women’s helpline. The problem is that the counsellor from the women’s helpline does not produce the couple before the special cell established for such couples in distress. They do not provide joint accommodation to the vulnerable couple. They can provide accommodation to only the girl. 

As per the directions of the honourable apex court, each district may have a safe house for couples. We do not have one per district, but it is due to Dhanak’s intervention that Delhi has a shelter home.

In Haryana and Punjab, there is a direction of the Chandigarh high court from 2010 under which they have opened shelter homes for couples. At least, Haryana has these—Punjab has not provided us any data. 

You will be surprised to know over three years, 2018, 2019 and 2020, more than 10,000 couples have stayed in Haryana’s shelter homes.

Nobody is using these except Dhanak—neither advocates nor other civil society organisations. If people start using these shelter homes, then a lot of couples will pour into them and the government will be forced to implement the directions of the SC in the Shakti Vahini case. Most states are not complying with the judgement. Maybe some have issued directions but we haven't received any information.

In places like UP and MP, the couples are scared and lack trust to the extent that they say they would not go to a state shelter. 

Tell us a little bit about how Dhanak started, what were you hoping to achieve, and  all these years later what do you find yourself working on?

Dhanak started basically from the personal experiences of the co-founders–my wife and me, and two to three other couples. We thought that there should be some platform for people to organise on the issue of interfaith couples. We started in 2004 as a support group, then registered the organisation in 2012.  

At the time, I thought that in 10 years, there will be many couples helping one another, perhaps in getting government gazetted officers’ attestation on documents,  finding witnesses, etc. I also thought that maybe after 10 years there would be many people who could simply go up to a police station and give their representation in favour of a young interfaith couple who they know is being harassed, requesting police protection for such a couple. And last, I imagined that in 10-15 years, we would have so many member couples that we would need to book a stadium for a function that everybody would attend. That was how  enthusiastic we were.

The reality, however, is that people are marrying outside their communities everywhere, but nobody is ready to speak about it. They’re not willing to speak on camera about their own cases for our Meri Kahani Meri Zubaani (My Story In My Words) videos.  

Their main fear and hurdle is their parents. There is indeed intimidation from society and from various groups, there are cases where parents organising an inter-faith marriage of one of their children is harassed. But those are fewer cases. In most cases, the biggest hurdle is parents.

Couples approach us asking if we can convince their parents. When we meet them either online or in person or over the phone, we tell them that is not going to happen. We tell them they have tried and the parents are not going to accept their love. We tell them if they are ready to move on, then we can help.

Even those who dare to move out, get married and get police protection are reluctant to talk on camera about their lives. The  hope is that they will go back to their parents and be eventually accepted, and so they do not wish to antagonise parents by taking their tale to the masses, in the hope that they will be ‘forgiven’ by their parents.

We try to tell all the couples who are staying with us that parivar ka moh kam karna padega (to curb their attachment to the family).

Ambedkar has said Daliton ko sudharna hai toh shehar jaana hoga (Dalits must go to the cities if they want to improve their lot). I add to it and say interfaith couples ko survive karna hai toh do saal parents ko door rakhna hoga (interfaith couples looking to survive must stay away from their parents for two years).

Is it true that the Special Marriage Act, 1954 actually makes it quite complex for interfaith couples to get married? What amendments do you think the law requires?

There are two answers to that.

Number one, the socio-political groups talking about love jihad just do not want interfaith marriages to take place. For them, and for the government as well, the biggest hurdle is the Special Marriage Act. All other issues have been sorted out at the ground level. The Special Marriage Act remains a hurdle.

Two, if the Special Marriage Act is to remain, there is a chance that in the future it may be linked to the idea of implementing a uniform civil code. It is my opinion that in the future, they may do away with the 30-day notice period, they may do away with the question of jurisdiction of the city where the marriage is to be registered, they may accept all other civil society suggestions including allowing same sex couples, etc. Only, they could add a single clause: The consent of the parents is essential.

Their objective is to stop interfaith marriage and this is a way to do it.  

The complexities in getting married under the Special Marriage Act are tremendous, but also discriminatory. To register a religious marriage, there is no notice period. Our petition on doing away with the notice period is pending in the Delhi high court since 2019. 

The jurisdiction issue is also complex. Section 5 of the law says that one of the parties should be residing or should have resided at the place where they're applying to register the marriage for one month immediately prior to the date of application. How will you prove this residence? You need to have a government document, an Aadhaar card, voter ID or passport.

This means a couple who has run away from one state in order to save their lives has to first live in the new state for one month to prove the jurisdiction. Then they must change the details in their Aadhaar card or whatever other document is to be used. If they don't change their Aadhaar card, they may write to the marriage officer asking for a police verification. The police will take one month’s time. 

This way, two months lapse. Once they get a police report, then the notice period under the Special Marriage Act starts—one month. So the couple may have to wait up to four months after leaving their homes.

Whereas in intra-faith marriages, couples can register their marriage on the same day. 

In Delhi, the government amended the rules for registration of marriages under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 as a means to prevent honour killings of inter-caste couples. They said that any Hindu couple coming from out of Delhi and solemnising their marriage in Delhi do not need to prove jurisdiction in Delhi. 

The marriage is solemnised under Arya Samaj rituals and Delhi marriage officers will register these on the same day. 

Again, this is discriminatory. A petition on ending this jurisdiction issue under the Special Marriage Act is clubbed with our petition on the 30-day notice period.

Where in India do most of the interfaith couples seeking your help come from? Small towns? Villages?

As per Dhanak’s data, maximum cases are from Delhi, then UP, then MP.  From small villages, we usually get cases of inter-caste relationships. More interfaith couples belong to towns, because villages’ social composition is such that young men and women from different religions rarely mix.  

Couples from urban areas may have jobs, may be earning, things are still easier for them in comparison. In rural areas, however, they absolutely have to leave—they cannot stay there and get married. Those who try to do a clandestine marriage and disclose it later find it doesn’t work. 

About 52% of cases we get are girls from the Hindu community. And 42% of the girls are from Muslim and Christian communities.   

We tell everyone that Dhanak is not a marriage bureau. They have to be careful how they see us and understand the wider issue. Unlike advocates who they may approach who may take a fee and get their marriage registered, we do not charge anything, but are helping them because we believe in the core issue, and we then want these couples to be associated with us. 

Those who have survived potentially violent situations in the course of getting married may also not wish to speak up alongside you on the subject?

That is a big problem, on account of our current environment, the current scenario. I will add that a lot of girls in interfaith marriages now think they should write their child’s religion as Hindu. They feel it is better to give children Hindu names so that they don’t face any problems in the future. That is the level of fear which is prevailing nowadays.

Do couples discuss the subject of a future child’s religion? What is your advice to them?

Yes they do. This is the second question parents pose to couples of different religions preparing to get married, about what religion the children would follow. 

There is no standard reply, but we give them an idea of what various people have done in the past. We tell them it is for them to decide what is best for them, but we explain that somebody has opted to write a child’s religion as Humanism or another religion. Some intentionally use the religion of the father of the child to avoid potential challenges.  

Does your being Muslim affect the levels of support and increase the levels of hate you may receive?  

We are struggling with this issue. Even when we find staff from non-Muslim communities, they do not stay with us for long. It’s not that they are fearful of the situation or that they are scared of the situation. Maybe they just do not get the kick or the drive from the work. 

So, unintentionally, at this moment in our organisation, I am Muslim, as per name; two colleagues who are survivors and working full-time with us are Muslim women. Our part-time counsellor is a Muslim, as is the person who handles our data. At present our president is also a Muslim. 

This makes it easy for those spreading hate or for the media to call us a Muslim organisation. It is a challenge for us that we are not able to find a person of a different faith who has the same fire in the belly. But it does happen that those  people are more close to the issue who are victims and survivors of the problem. 

At this particular time in India, when hate might be making interfaith couples rethink their relationships, what is Dhanak’s role? 

The question of whether they will or will not get into an interfaith marriage is to be  asked to somebody whose reasoning is working. Once you are in love, then that question is not relevant—couples will fall in love, and will get married anyway, and that’s a good thing. 

When I talk to my advocate and he warns me, I say listen, those who live by the gun also die by the gun. We are fighting and taking up cases, so maybe we will have cases against us. We are prepared for it. 

We want to get into some issues, through theatre and going to schools. 

We particularly want to draw the spotlight on domestic violence from parents, an aspect that is not usually covered. Domestic violence is considered to be always at the hands of the parents-in-law or the husband. 

But for young women who find their phones confiscated, their education stopped when the family finds that they are “not listening” to the elders, I want to take the message that domestic violence may occur within the homes of unmarried women too. 

As far as our present work is concerned, we are banking heavily on getting the Shakti Vahini judgement implemented. We want more organisations to participate in this struggle. 

We want to take our campaign for interfaith love to the masses, which is the challenging part. We want to take it to elected representatives.  

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(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14 and the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss’, a book on India’s farm crisis.)