(Bloomberg) — India’s most populous state has vowed to fight what it calls “love jihad” and has declared interfaith marriages illegal if the purpose is the religious conversion of the woman, in the latest move that could potentially further divide the South Asian nation along religious lines.
States led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party call interfaith marriages “love jihad” — a reference to an alleged conspiracy of Muslim men luring Hindu women into marriage for conversion. Ministers in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s firebrand priest Yogi Adityanath on Tuesday approved the law that also proposes jail sentences as long as 10 years for offenders.
The heated election campaign rhetoric that’s turned into legislation has triggered a debate on whether such a law will curb religious and civil liberties guaranteed by the constitution of the world’s largest democracy. At least five BJP-ruled states have announced their intention to pass similar laws but until now, only Himachal Pradesh has enacted its Religious Freedom Act, which came into force last year.
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Since his re-election in 2019, Modi revoked Article 370 of the constitution that granted special autonomous status to India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and approved a citizenship law that discriminates based on religion. He has also pushed for a national citizens registry in the northeastern state of Assam and laid the foundation stone for the construction of a Hindu temple at a site where a 16th century mosque was razed.
The new law requires a person seeking religious conversion ahead of marriage to send an application to the district magistrate, the top administrator in a district, two months in advance, a minister with the provincial government told the media on Tuesday according to the Indian Express newspaper.
The legislation does not ban interfaith marriages except those for the sole purpose of conversion, but it will go a long way in discouraging mixed marriages as the couples may be harassed by the police and the authorities.
Mixed marriages, seen as essential to and an indicator of social harmony, are already rare in India. In the country’s capital city only 589 marriages were interfaith, out of 19,250 registered during the first nine months last year, according to official data reported by a news network News18. Another study on 15 year data till 2005 showed that only 2.2% of all women between the age of 15-49 had married outside their religion, according to Indian Express newspaper.
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