New Delhi — Police in India’s Uttar Pradesh state made their first arrest this week under a controversial new law targeting something right-wing Hindu groups call “love jihad” — an alleged religious conversion conspiracy by Muslim men to lure Hindu women into marriage and away from their faith.
Owais Ahmed, a Muslim man, was arrested on Wednesday after a Hindu man accused him of coercing and trying to lure his daughter away from her Muslim husband and into converting to Islam. Ahmed appeared in court and was remanded in custody for 14 days pending trial.
“This is the first arrest under the new law,” senior Uttar Pradesh state police officer Rajesh Kumar Pandey was quoted as saying by Indian media.
Speaking to Indian news outlet The Print, Ahmad maintained his innocence and said he has no current connection with the woman, a former high school classmate who got married a year ago to a Hindu man and remains in that marriage.
Ahmed was the first person arrested under the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020. The new legislation, which has come to be known colloquially in India as the “love jihad law,” was adopted (only hours before Ahmed’s arrest) this week by the regional government in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with almost 200 million residents.
The law is ostensibly aimed at protecting people against “forced” or “fraudulent” religious conversion. A section of the legislation says no person shall convert or attempt to convert any other person from one religion to another by “use or practice of misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage nor shall any person abet, convince or conspire such conversion.”
People convicted of violating the law can face up to 10 years in prison without the possibility of bail, along with hefty fines. The law places the burden of proof of innocence on the accused, rather than plaintiffs having to prove their claims to a court.
Critics have called the new legislation Islamophobic, regressive, and politically motivated, and warned that it may lead to harassment of Muslims in the Hindu majority country. Some believe it will drive interfaith couples to hide their relationships.
On Friday, it emerged that Uttar Pradesh police had also stormed a wedding on Wednesday underway between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man in the state capital of Lucknow. They halted the celebrations and brought both families to a local police station, where officers told the families they would need to get permission from the state government before going ahead with the ceremony, to ensure the new law was not being violated.
Such a permission would not be required by a couple of the same religion.
No similar laws currently exist across the country of more than 1.3 billion people, but CBS News’ partner network BBC News reported on Thursday that at least four other Indian states — all governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — were drafting their own “love jihad” legislation. BJP politicians have campaigned against the purported practice for years.
Opposition parties have accused the BJP of divisive, anti-Muslim politics, a charge Modi and his allies deny. Just before the coronavirus pandemic struck India, Modi was facing a major national crisis as nationwide protests raged against new citizenship laws that opponents say single out Muslims.
Ashok Gehlot, a senior leader of the opposition Indian National Congress party and the chief minister of Rajasthan state, blasted the new law before it was enacted in Uttar Pradesh as “a ploy” by BJP politicians and Hindu nationalists “to disrupt communal harmony, fuel social conflict & disregard constitutional provisions like the state not discriminating against citizens on any ground.”
“Love Jihad is a word manufactured by BJP to divide the Nation & disturb communal harmony. Marriage is a matter of personal liberty, bringing a law to curb it is completely unconstitutional & it will not stand in any court of law. Jihad has no place in Love,” Gehlot said in a series of tweets on November 20, as the law headed for expected approval in Uttar Pradesh.
He said Modi’s ruling party was “creating an environment in the nation where consenting adults would be at the mercy of state power. Marriage is a personal decision & they are putting curbs on it, which is like snatching away personal liberty.”