Here is why interfaith marriages in India continue to raise eyebrows
Resentment against interfaith relationships highlight ingrained patriarchy and sexism
In February 2018, 23-year old Indian, Ankit Saxena was brutally murdered by the father and uncle of his girlfriend Shehzadi, in New Delhi. In a fit of fury and fear of societal backlash, the girl’s father took it upon himself to kill the guy, as an attempt to end the relationship.
This barbaric treatment was the result of vehement opposition to the relationship as it was an inter-religious one. Ankit came from a Hindu family, and Shehzadi belonged to a Muslim household.
“Main poori taiyaari ke saath Ankit ka kaam tamam karke roj-roj ki chik chik se chutkara paana chahta tha kyonki meri mohalle mein badi bezzati ho gayi thi. (I went out with the intention of killing Ankit and ending the daily squabble because I had been humiliated in the neighbourhood),” Shehzadi’s father, Akbar Ali confessed to the police.
While the disturbing incident made headlines across the country, the girl’s parents seemed unfazed in the aftermath of the crime. The primary reason for this apathy being the unacceptability that significant number of Indians harbour against interfaith couples.
A 2018 survey revealed an astounding 93 percent of the urban respondents had found their partners through a match set up by their parents, from within their religious or caste communities. In addition, three-quarters of those surveyed did not approve of inter-caste marriages for their children.
This sweeping number largely stems from strict patterns of endogamy promoting marriages within one’s religion or caste so as to preserve social and financial hierarchy. Since a woman’s identity is assumed to be stemming from her father or husband’s, inter-religious marriages pose a challenge to this set up.
In addition, families tend to focus on their outward personas as functional units. Interfaith marriages raise questions within both religious communities, something that the families want to avoid.
Will the girl convert to the guy’s religion? Why did the parents not intervene? What wedding traditions will the couple have? What will be the religion of the couple’s offsprings? Who will marry the siblings of such couples?
India in recent times has witnessed fervent right-wing extremism and the birth of the concept of ‘Love Jihad’, denoting relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women as malicious attempts to convert the women to Islam.
In early 2018, a Facebook page was pulled down after it listed the names of 102 Muslim men who were allegedly involved with Hindu women, and asked Hindus to “track and hunt the boys on the list”.
Such disturbing trends have been augmented by episodes of violence against interfaith couples by self-appointed moral police. Cases of physical assaults and mob violence against such couples have become prominent in recent times.
The occurrence of such episodes has made it more difficult to push the envelope of free choice and liberal values within the Indian diaspora.
One can witness the situation getting grimmer as interfaith couples are harassed by police officials. In 2017, the country’s National Investigation Agency rounded at least twelve interfaith couples in the state of Kerala, to question them on their relationships.
The most prominent case being of 24-year-old Indian woman named Hadiya who was in the eye of a judicial and religious storm for having married a Muslim man. Originally born as Akhila Ashokan to Hindu parents, Hadiya converted to Islam and married Shafin Jahan.
The marriage, her father claimed was borne out of forced conversion, while Hadiya maintained that it was out of her choice. A case was registered in a lower court to “rescue” Hadiya, calling for the annulment of the marriage. Hadiya persisted that she had married for love, without any coercion.
The Supreme Court of India later restored her right to be with the person she wanted to be, irrespective of their religion, that had earlier been annulled by a lower court.
These episodes are a result of narrow-mindedness and right-wing nationalism gaining grounds within Indian society.
Families, couples and the society at large, have a long way to walk towards respecting individual freedom of religion and marriage, granted as constitutional rights to all Indians.
Accepting love as the basis of happy and successful relationships is the foundation of resilient and harmonious societies.
Being born in a particular religion is not a matter of choice, but choosing to love is.
While interfaith couples might face more hurdles than intrafaith ones, jingoistic and politically driven actors have tried to give such relationships a nationalistic tinge.
Change however, is imminent. It can be resisted through fear and hatred, but it does eventually makes a comeback.
In 1967, US supreme court announced interracial marriages valid, placing a permanent end to all state laws that opposed them. That civil rights decision saw a remarkable rise in the numbers of interracial marriages, which in 2015 constituted 17% of all weddings in the country.
We are not far away from the day when interfaith couples could become the norm of Indian society. And that would indicate a shift towards a more open, tolerant and accepting society.
But until then, the fight has to continue to challenge sexism, patriarchy and misogyny existing in the minds and lives of our generation.
Interfaith couples present the coalescence of diversity and syncretism that is unique to India’s identity.
Choosing to ignore that is choosing to ignore being an Indian.