Guest post by ZAKIA SOMAN
The wedding of Nusrat Jahan the TMC MP to Nikhil Jain is refreshing news. It is heartening to see two young Indians from different faith backgrounds uniting and celebrating their marriage in the times of religious hate and division.
The mixing of politics and religion has led to a climate where marrying a person from another faith has become extremely difficult specially for young people. The case of Hadiya may have been highlighted in the media but it is certainly not the only instance where a couple had to undergo tremendous hardships for falling in love. The self-appointed guardians of religion who seem omnipresent in family, community, police, judiciary, government, media would walk great lengths to prevent inter-faith marriages from taking place.
The young MP’s wedding is heartening when religious polarization and cultural divide is being whipped up daily to score petty political scores. This kind of politics thrives by communally dividing people and forcibly preventing them from coming together. This has been severely affecting the exercise of free choice in daily lives of several Indians. Although inter-faith marriages have never been easy in our society the problem has been exacerbated by pro-active motivated opposition, threats of violence and vandalism by vested groups backed by political parties and sometimes those in government. Many young Indians are forced to undergo harassment and subjected to violence if they want to marry a spouse belonging to another faith.
Inter-faith marriages have always met with opposition rather than support in our multi-faith multi-cultural society despite it being perfectly lawful and legal. The incidence of forced marriages and honour killings has continued despite Constitutional rights of citizens. It has never been easy to marry a beloved who belonged to another religion, caste or region. The barriers and resistance to such marriages mainly come from parents, family and immediate community. Increasingly, what is essentially an intimate personal matter has been hugely politicized by vigilante groups posing as protectors of the faith and “saving” daughters from marrying outside. The bogey of love jihad, the politics over conversions and open lumpenism against inter-faith couples has made these marriages more difficult in last few years. Besides, the police and the administration machinery is usually reluctant to provide protection to the couples taking cue from the preferences of their political masters. For those profiting by mixing politics and religion, inter-faith couples are easy prey. Harassment and intimidation of such couples helps the vested groups magnify their message of religious hate and division.
On a larger plain, barriers to inter-faith marriages highlight several paradoxes in our society and polity. It highlights one of the key challenges that we as a developing economy and maturing society are undergoing. On the one hand we have the Constitution that upholds individual freedom and choice to marry as per one’s wish. We have the legal backing of the Special Marriages Act for inter-faith and even within faith marriages. Simultaneously, we also have anti-conversion laws effective in different states which complicate the process of inter-faith marriages. Often, the vigilante groups obtain information about a proposed inter-faith marriage from the marriage Registrar’s office and reach the bride or groom’s home as the case may be. They indulge in violence and most often succeed in stalling the marriage by coercing the family as the police remain mute spectators. Such couples do not form a sizable block and their plight is of no interest to any political grouping.
As the economy advances and middle class expands more and more young Indians seek to empower themselves through education and various other means. More and more young women and men would study together, work together and interact in myriad ways. Some of them may fall in love and marry. This would be the lived secularism of empowered Indians as against the theoretical secularism of political debates. Or are we now going to teach our young adults to check the antecedents – religion, caste, sub-caste etc before falling in love! It is strange that we want educational and economic empowerment for the youth but we won’t allow them to exercise free choice in marriage.
Ours is a diverse society with several plural traditions going beyond communities and creeds. Respect, mutual regard and peaceful co-existence have not come in the way of the exercise of religion thus far. Enmity and hostility towards the perceived religious other have not been the markers of anyone’s religiosity as yet. Politics based on religious hate as well as division seems to threaten this balance of religious diversity and peace in society. Systematically and sometimes violently preventing a young woman from marrying a man from another faith seems to be fast becoming the norm in our society. Heightened politicization of religion demands obedience from young persons and marry within established norms of communities. This kind of politics is not just toxically divisive, it is also extremely patriarchal. It deprives a young woman from exercising her free choice. It demonizes men from another community. It forces the burden of upholding “community honour” on the woman. It illustrates how politicized religions demand huge sacrifices from women. On the other hand there is clichéd talk and governmental programs about empowerment of women. Preventing a woman from marrying a man of her choice goes against the basic idea of women empowerment. In today’s communally polarized climate, Nusrat Jahan’s wedding must be celebrated by all who believe in democracy and pluralism.
Zakia Soman is a woemn’s rights activists and one of the founding members of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan