“Forceful” Conversions: Truth Or Religious Hostility

For over a week, the Sikhs in the Indian-administered Kashmir have been protesting against the “forced” conversions of four Sikh women who married Muslim men in Srinagar. Out of these four women, two have recently come out saying that these allegations were baseless.

The first case was of Manmeet Kaur, a 19-year-old Sikh woman, who fled from her home with her partner Shahid Nazir Bhat, a 29-year-old Muslim man with an intention to marry. However, her family filed a kidnapping complaint against Bhat and demanded the custody of Manmeet. Despite the fact that Manmeet denied all these allegations and admitted that she wanted to marry Bhat, he still remains in police custody.

The other case was of 29-year-old Danmeet Kaur who left her home on June 6 to live with her husband Muzaffar Shaban, a 30-year-old Muslim. According to Danmeet, she had been in love with Muzaffar for over 15 years who she married in 2014.

However, she stated that she had converted to Islam of her own will in 2012 when the two were dating. The protesters led by the Jag Asra Guru Ott (Jago) Party have demanded a law against inter-faith marriages and forced conversions in Kashmir.

Such laws have already been in place in other Indian states like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh amongst several others. Quite recently, Uttar Pradesh passed the Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance (2020) which criminalizes conversion caused by misinformation, coercion, allurement, or fraudulent means. The person(s) involved can be jailed for up to 10 years with a minimum fine of Rs. 25000. The law, popularly known as love-jihad law, is criticized by the media and civil organizations, as a means to target the Muslim population and appease the Hindu majority.

Such laws further marginalize and “other” the Muslim population of the country by depicting them as a threat to Hindu women and their chastity. This is crucial because the honor of the community vests in the honor (or chastity) of their women, and therefore, this control of women’s bodies and marriage choices are justified and even hailed within the community.

In both the above cases, the women consensually married their partners (lovers) but their decision did not hold any value or importance in the eyes of either their family or even the law enforcers.

So, the basic question here is: Why only the Muslim population is seen as a threat to the honor of Hindu women (and thus, the community)? And why such laws specifically (overtly or covertly) target only Muslims? The answer to this question beholds in the very ideology of the current government which borrows its beliefs from the Hindu paramilitary organizations Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS or the National Group of Self-Helpers) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Council of Hindus).

Although these organizations claim to be civil bodies, they actively promote Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation), a belief that Hindus are the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent and therefore, they must take active measures to restore the Hindu nation to its glory. Many BJP (the current ruling party) leaders, especially the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have publicly spoken against the Muslim population and how they are spreading their terror on “poor” Hindu women.

In several instances, he has called upon his Hindu “brothers” to avenge upon the national “enemy”- the Muslims. Such speeches, popularly termed as hate speeches, have aroused communal tensions amongst the two religious factions and, time and again labeled Muslims as the brutal/threatening “other”.

 

In the light of such anti-Muslim sentiment in the country emanating from the ruling party, it is complicated to understand whether “forced” conversions are real or just religious “othering” of the Muslims. In both instances of Sikh women in Kashmir, it is important to note that the women made a choice to convert and marry their partners.

However, such choices were actively delegitimized by their community, and the marriage was effectively called “jihad”. Their partners still lie in police custody while one of those women was “forcibly” married to a man from the Sikh community and photos of their marriage were shared on the internet.

The picture painted by the community is that the woman has been “restored” to her community and thus, has regained her freedom. But really, what freedom? What choice did she have in this matter? While members of the Sikh community are priding themselves of restoring the woman’s honor, the woman has been forced into an alliance with someone against her will.

On the rumors about her “forceful” marriage to the Muslim man, Danmeet told Al Jazeera, “Why can’t they let an adult woman make a decision for herself?”

It seems that this rise of Hindu Rashtra is not only marginalizing Muslims (painting them as enemies) but at the same time taking away women’s choices and freedom (because of course they can’t really create a Hindu nation without controlling women’s sexual and marital choices). Therefore, this kind of Hindu imagination is detrimental not just to minorities but also to women at large and it is important that we underline and understand the rise of these patterns before we are trapped in a crossfire between the two religions.

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