Updated: Apr 29
New Delhi/Thiruvananthapuram: In January 2020, Rekha Sharma, the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW) warned the government of Kerala that ‘love jihad’ was like a “ticking time bomb” that would “explode” unless the Kerala government acted against it.
Both Hindu and Christian women were victims, she claimed, of what is seen in right-wing groups, and, increasingly, politicians (here, here, here, here, here, and here) in states run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a conspiracy by Muslim men to lure and convert women of other faiths.
Those conspiracy theories, frequently dismissed by many government agencies—including the Centre, the Supreme Court, India’s main investigative agency and the NCW itself—over the years, have grown in prominence in India’s most-literate state as it goes to the polls on 6 April 2021.
With support from some sections of the influential Catholic Church—reformist groups dismiss it as “nonsense”—the BJP hopes to raise the issue of ‘love jihad’, with its Kerala chief telling Article 14 that his party would enact a ‘love jihad’ law if voted to power, as eight other BJP states have, or are in the process of doing.
Despite commonly held beliefs that the ‘love jihad’ narrative began in Uttar Pradesh or somewhere in north India, it was in Kerala that a Malayalam newspaper story first raised the issue as a public concern—the term was coined by a Hindu right-wing organisation in Karnataka—before making its way up north where it found wider acceptance.
So, it was about Kerala—where the orthodox acknowledge discomfort over younger people mingling more than ever—that Sharma chose to deliver her warning.
‘Love Jihad Happening in Kerala’
“I conducted a detailed enquiry into the forceful conversion (sic) and love jihad and women leaving the country,” Sharma told the news agency ANI on 27 January 2020. “It (‘love jihad’) is happening in Kerala.”
Sharma added, “Women are forcefully taken to different countries in the name of love jihad and are used as a sex object. Marrying a person from a different religion is not a problem but forcefully converting them is a problem.”
Ten months later, on 20 October 2020, Sharma met with the Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari and tweeted that the state was witnessing a “rise in love jihad cases”.
Yet the NCW’s responses to right-to-information (RTI) requests by Article 14 reveal that the Commission in fact has no data from anywhere in India on Sharma’s so-called “ticking time bomb” of ‘love jihad’ and forceful conversions.
RTI responses also showed that Sharma’s “detailed inquiry” was no more than a three-day visit in 2017 to Kerala, sparked by an alleged case of parental violence against a young woman. As for the findings of this enquiry, the NCW refused to disclose a copy of the report, despite an RTI ruling in favour of Article 14 directing the commission to do so.
The Love Jihad ‘Conspiracy’
The term ‘love jihad’ is now used as a shorthand for an alleged conversion conspiracy, as we said, for purposes that allegedly range from recruitment into Islamic terror groups and sex trafficking to changing India’s demography.
In recent months, Karnataka, Assam, Haryana, Gujarat, all ruled by the BJP by itself or in coalition, have promised laws to curb ‘love jihad’; Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and in recent weeks, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, have already passed laws that criminalise conversion by marriage.
The BJP has made ‘love jihad’ a poll issue in West Bengal and in Kerala, where it has found a strong ally in the Church, which has often made similar allegations. The Syro-Malabar Church, the second-largest eastern Catholic Church in the world, alleged in January 2020 that 12 Christian women had been converted via ‘love jihad’ and taken to Syria.
The Church claimed that ‘love jihad’ was part of a larger agenda of the Islamic State (IS) to “threaten the religious and social harmony of Kerala”. Senior clergy even raised the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 19 January 2020. This was days after the Syro-Malabar Church filed a complaint on 14 January 2020 with the National Commission for Minorities, where it drew a parallel between love jihad and the execution of Christian captives in Nigeria on 26 December 2019 by the Islamic State.
What Our RTI Requests Revealed
Following NCW chairperson Sharma’s meeting with Koshiyari, on 23 October 2020, Article 14 filed an RTI request with the NCW. We asked for: 1) data pertaining to love-jihad cases available with the NCW; 2) Notes/letters/memos/orders etc. sent or received by the NCW pertaining to ‘love jihad’ cases; and 3) File notings concerned with so-called ‘love-jihad’ cases.
In its reply on 11 November 2020, the NCW stated that “no specific data under the category of complaints related to ‘love jihad’ is maintained by the NCW,” indicating that there was no empirical basis for Sharma’s statements on ‘love jihad’.
Article 14 filed another RTI application on 21 November 2020, asking for data, information or any record pertaining to “forceful conversions of girls and women”, using the same language that Sharma used in her warning to the Kerala Government.
On 26 November 2020, the NCW replied: “As per record, no separate category data/information is maintained/available in the NCW.”
Since Sharma said that she had conducted a “detailed inquiry” into ‘love jihad’ in Kerala, Article 14 filed a third application on 16 December 2020, requesting the terms of reference, the duration, and the findings of the NCW inquiry.
The NCW replied on 11 January 2021, saying that the inquiry was conducted over three days from 5-8 November 2017. It denied all other information, invoking section 8(1)(j) of the Right To Information Act, 2005. This section exempts personal information, “the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual”.
Venkatesh Nayak, head of the Access to Information program at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and an RTI expert, criticised the NCW’s use of the privacy clause to keep its findings secret.
“This is complete nonsense,” said Nayak. “An enquiry report by the NCW into an alleged phenomenon is a matter of public interest, and privacy cannot be applied mechanically. If someone’s privacy is at stake, the PIO could have redacted the individual’s details.”
On 12 January 2021, Article 14 appealed against the denial of information. On 12 February 2021, Pradeep Kumar, deputy secretary and first appellate authority, ruled that NCW should disclose all information.
Instead of complying with the disclosure order, the NCW PIO invoked a new exemption clause to keep NCW’s inquiry report secret: section 8.1.g, which exempts information, “the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes”.
“There is no ground for a PIO to not comply with the disclosure ruling and come up with a new rejection clause after an appeal has been adjudicated,” said Nayak, the RTI expert. “This looks like an attempt to prevent the disclosure of the report and they are coming up with different reasons at different stages.”
Article 14 is preparing a complaint to the Central Information Commission, India’s apex authority for RTI-related appeals and complaints. Meanwhile the NCW’s partial disclosure of documents to us reveals several aspects of the inquiry.
‘The Detailed Inquiry’
The ball was set into motion in 2017 when Ernakulam-based activist Rahul Easwar released a video to The News Minute, originally recorded when he met a young woman medic called Hadiya (she only uses one name) at her parents’ home in Kottayam in August 2017.
In the video, which Easwar made public on 26 October 2017, Hadiya says: “I may be killed soon, my father hits me.”
Earlier called Akhila Ashokan, Hadiya’s decision to embrace Islam and to marry Shafin Jahan against her parents’ wishes, erupted in a bitter political controversy in 2016-18, and even invited a Supreme Court-ordered probe by the National Investigation Agency.
Sharma constituted a two-member team comprising herself and Krishnadas P. Nair, advocate and central government counsel, Kerala High Court, to tour Kerala and “interact with the victim, across sections of society including authorities concerned as deemed proper to ascertain the facts and circumstances”.
Allegations Without Evidence
After meeting Hadiya on 6 November 2017, Sharma briefed the press, saying Hadiya was safe and not facing any harassment at her parental home. She also met a worried mother Bindu Sampath, whose daughter Nimisha, a dentist, converted to Islam and moved to Afghanistan with her husband, allegedly to join the ISIS.
In an interview to The News Minute on November 8, 2017, Sharma stated that there was no ‘love jihad’ in Hadiya’s case.
However, she alleged that there were “many young people who are forcibly converting vulnerable young women” into Islam in Kerala, perhaps financed with foreign funds, and that the state government was not serious about the problem.
Sharma also accused the Popular Front of India (PFI), an Islamist group, and specifically the head of its women’s wing, A S Sainaba, of forcefully converting Hadiya and other women into Islam. Sainaba denied the allegation, as has Hadiya. When Article 14 contacted Hadiya and her parents on the phone, they declined to comment. They said that they have collectively decided against media interviews as they do not wish to be subjects of public attention anymore.
This was the three-day long “detailed inquiry” that led Sharma to her “ticking time bomb” claim. The NCW, as we said, has not made that enquiry report public and defying an order from an appellate authority, has denied Article 14 a copy.
Not just the NCW, a number of government agencies, including the NIA have drawn a blank as far as actual instances of ‘love jihad’ and forced conversions go.
A senior NIA official told the Hindustan Times in October 2018 that while people and organisations associated with the PFI were “involved in helping either the man or the woman involved in a relationship to convert to Islam, we didn’t find any prosecutable evidence to bring formal charges against these persons”. The NIA did not find evidence of a larger criminal conspiracy.
On 4 February 2020, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, G. Krishna Reddy told the Parliament that no case of ‘love jihad’ “has been reported by any of the central agencies.”
Documents provided in response to an RTI request by Article 14 show that the Kerala Police too found no evidence of ‘love jihad’, when asked by the National Commission for Minorities to investigate the complaint it had received from the Syro-Malabar Church on 14 January 2020. In its complaint to the commission, the church had alleged, “It is a fact that Love Jihad is happening in Kerala targeting Christian girls in a well-planned manner.”
The Additional Director-General of Police’s report dated 10 February 2020 to the commission said that it had conducted a detailed enquiry into the allegations and concerns mentioned in the church’s complaint, and found that “the girls were majors who voluntarily decided to marry and no force or coercions of any type were used for the marriage.”
The report concluded by saying, “The allegations and concerns raised by the Synod of Syro Malabar Catholic Church, Kerala in their representation to National. Minority Commission are not based on facts. The complaint of "Love Jihad" is not found to be true.”
The Kerala Women’s Commission chairperson M. C. Josephine said ‘love jihad’ has never been an official issue, except during the Hadiya case, which revealed no such evidence.
“In the Hadiya case, the commission had ensured that the girl was not subjected to any kind of coercion,” Josephine told Article 14. “It was not a case of love jihad.”
“The commission felt happy when the Supreme Court gave a verdict [in 2018] upholding the right of Hadiya to marry outside religion,” said Josephine. “We are also of the opinion that there is no love jihad in Kerala. We stand with Kerala police’s findings over the issue.”
As far as the Kerala Women’s Commission was concerned, said Josephine, “we believe in promotion of inter-faith marriages’’.
How ‘Love Jihad’ Was Made in Kerala
Despite the lack of any evidence, “love jihad has turned into a major national debate with Kerala as the epicenter," said Muhammed Suhail. “We all need to worry.”
Suhail is the founder-director of independent Malayalam news portal Dool News, which has tracked the ‘love jihad’ campaign and its links with politics for more than a decade.
The ‘love jihad’ discourse began about 12 years ago, when the prominent Malayalam daily, Kerala Kaumudi, carried a story on 5 October 2009 by Vadayar Sunil with the headline “Romeo Jihadis prowl with love traps.”
Based on anonymous sources in state police intelligence, the story claimed that over 4,000 young Hindu women been converted to radical Islam across Kerala in the previous four years through trickery and pretense of love.
The report alleged that “young jihadi romeos”, supported by radical Islam outfits, such as Muslim Youth Forum, Muslim Women Organisation, Thasreen Millath, Shaheen Force, Popular Front of India, National Development Front, and Campus Front were behind the mass indoctrination of Hindu women.
Within a couple of days, India’s largest circulating regional-language daily, Malayala Manorama almost replicated the same theory, also quoting police intelligence sources on its front page. In a three-part edit-page series, it reduced the number of Hindu girls who allegedly converted to Islam for love in the four years preceding 2009 to 2866.
By the time Malayala Manorama ended the series, the term ‘love jihad’ had triggered a fierce debate across the state, and right-wing leaders began demanding a probe into the alleged conspiracy.
A Term That Originated From The Far Right
Some BJP and RSS leaders even demanded that all inter-caste and inter-religious marriages over the period be investigated for involvement of “jihadi elements”.
The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council joined in, suggesting an awareness campaign, especially among young women.
In their defense, Kerala’s Muslim organisations claimed these stories had been planted by right-wing intelligence officers in order to vitiate the state’s social calm. As per Census 2011 data, Kerala’s Hindus, Muslims and Christians constitute 54.7, 26.6 and 18.4% of the state’s population respectively.
The news reports by Kerala Kaumudi and Malayala Manorama echoed a narrative propagated by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS).
The political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot considers the HJS (Committee for Hindu Awakening) an offshoot of the RSS. It is active in Goa, coastal Karnataka and Kerala and counts as an ally, the shadowy hard-line Hindutva organization, Sanatan Sanstha, accused of orchestrating bomb blasts and of killing Gauri Lankesh, a journalist, on 5 September 2017 outside her home in Bengaluru.
The HJS first coined the term ‘love jihad’, but also confirmed its imaginary existence in both Kerala and Karnataka. An HJS press release on 15 October 2009, likened Muslim youth to “sexual wolves” and alleged that over 30,000 women had converted to Islam in Karnataka.
The HJS also claimed 3,000-4,000 Hindu young women were forcibly converted to Islam between 2006-09, based on an erroneous reading of an order of the Kerala High Court.
Its pamphlet titled ‘Love Jihad’ available in English, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, and other Indian languages, first published in 2011, is charged with hypersexual conspiracy theories, without evidence. For instance,
“Having realised the impact of films on Bharatiya society, Pakistan’s secret agency ‘ISI’ began investing money in Bharatiya film industry through the medium of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim since 1990, to create an atmosphere conducive for ‘Love Jihad’.
These people compelled the film producers to create films with a ‘Muslim hero and Hindu heroine’. In these films, love scenes between a Muslim hero (Examples–Imran Hashmi, Saif Ali Khan, Fardeen Khan and Salman Khan) and a Hindu heroine are deliberately shown so as to create illicit emotions of love in the minds of Hindu girls. Therefore, Hindu girls try to look for the Muslim hero on the silver screen amongst the Muslim youth in their area. Consequently, Hindu girls do not feel anything wrong in having an affair with a Muslim or marrying him.
In contrast, if the story of the film depicts a love affair between a Hindu hero and a Muslim heroine, Jihadis unite to oppose such a film. This had happened with the film titled ‘Bombay’.”
In 2010, after a detailed investigation in response to a high court order, the Kerala police said that there was no evidence of ‘love jihad’ and that there were no “romeo jihadis”, as the two Malayalam newspapers and the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti claimed.
“Soon after the HJS claim created a widespread sensation in Kerala, a sustained investigation was ordered, and the state police concluded that it was a misinformation campaign carrying no substance,” said N C Asthana, a retired Kerala-cadre Indian Police Service officer. “All the claims of the portal were found to be false.”
“Subsequently, Justice M. Sasidharan Nambiar of Kerala High Court closed the investigation saying inter-religious marriages were widely prevalent in Kerala over the years because of high literacy and its reformist legacy," said Asthana.
Yet, provisions of the ‘love jihad’ laws enacted by BJP-ruled states (see here and here) echo some of the demands of the HJS.
BJP Promises A Love-Jihad Law For Kerala
As Kerala goes to the polls on 6 April 2021, the BJP is attempting to inject the ‘love jihad’ issue into political discourse.
Former Delhi Metro Rail Corporation managing director E Sreedharan, 88, who the BJP said would be chief minister if the party won Kerala, told NDTV in February 2020 that he was opposed to ‘love jihad’ because he had seen “Hindu girls suffer after being tricked into marriage.” He added: “not only Hindus, Muslim, the Christian girls (sic) are being tricked into marriage.” He has since refused to comment on the issue.
But Kerala state BJP President K Surendran told Article 14 that the party would promulgate a law to “prevent love jihad” if voted to power.
“Kerala has more cases of love jihad than Uttar Pradesh,” said Surendran. “More than Hindus, Christian community in Kerala looks more worried about this jihadi activity. We are bound to protect their interests as well."
The church has, in recent days, rephrased ‘love jihad’ as “inter-religious love affairs with bad intentions”.
The deputy secretary of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, Fr Varghese Vallikkat, said the church was not targeting any particular community on the issue of ‘love jihad’.
“We consider Muslims of Kerala as our brethren,” said Fr Vallikkat. “But we must not ignore a minor section getting radicalised continuously and maintain links with global Islam. We hope the secular parties would sooner or later realize the real dangers of keeping mum over love jihad. It's dangerous to our social fabric."
But Kerala’s Joint Christian Council and the Archdiocesan Reformist Group, both reformist groups, have distanced themselves from the conspiracy narrative, saying there was no hidden agenda in any community in Kerala to convert Christian women. These groups linked the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council’s position on ‘love jihad’ with its support to the BJP government on the issue of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, which opens a path to citizenship to refugees from threex neighbouring countries, except Muslims.
Bishop Dr. Yuhanon Mar Meletius of the Kerala Orthodox Church, who lives in the central Kerala town of Thrissur, told Article 14 that the ‘love jihad’ issue was “meaningless” and raised by “people with ulterior motives”.
"There are no religious or social concerns behind this love-jihad controversy,” said Bishop Meletius. “It is 100% political with a vexed communal agenda. Christian groups must refrain from indulging in such communally charged campaigns." he said.
He said inter-religious marriages are common because young people have more opportunities to meet and mingle freely. "There is nothing wrong with it," he said.
Choice, Patriarchy and Authoritarian Politics
Beyond the intermingling of young people, many point to the fact that the ‘love jihad’ issue is a conservative reaction against changing mores. It revitalizes an older patriarchal project to police social boundaries and the bodies of women, said observers.
Police data indicate these anxieties pervade all communities. In September 2019, The Week, a newsmagazine, reported that of 78 complaints of ‘love jihad’ registered with the Kerala Police since 2015, 35 cases were filed by Hindu parents, 31 by Muslim parents and 12 by Christian parents.
“Fundamentally, inter-religious marriages are personal choices of consenting adults,” writer and academic J. Devika told Article 14. “The discourse of love jihad communalizes and criminalizes such choices. No woman is the property of her family. They have all rights to decide what is good for them in life."
However, writer and veteran human-rights lawyer Nandita Haksar told Article 14 that ‘love jihad’ and the recent laws are not limited to questions of individual rights and personal liberties. “Love matches are an act of rebellion against the control of tradition, family and religion. They become a threat to all forms of authoritarianism. There is a need to see the linkage between religion, family and fascism.” Historian and professor at Ashoka University, Aparna Vaidik, too linked the bogey of ‘love jihad’ to the maintenance of the caste hierarchy.
Noted Malayalam writer and social critic M. N. Karassery pointed out that barely 2.01% of Kerala's marriages are interfaith.
“It may be a little higher than the national average,” said Karassery. “Education, career, and better living standards are something that prompts the younger generation to go beyond religion to find life partners. Across religions and communities in Kerala, people are now investing more in education and careers. If you are not considering these aspects, your conclusions on inter-faith marriages would be distorted.”
On 13 February 2021, a picture of Hadiya’s parents, Ponnamma and Ashokan visiting her at her homeopathic clinic in Othungal in Malappuram went viral in Malayalee social-media circles globally.
All three of them were smiling.
(Aniket Aga teaches at Ashoka University. K A Shaji is a South India-based journalist who writes on human rights, environment, livelihood, caste and marginalised communities. Chitrangada Choudhury is on the editorial board of Article 14.)