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Marriage Equality In India Isn't Only About LGBTQ, But Religion And Caste Too

Interfaith and inter-caste relationships have always been difficult in India. As the Supreme Court hears petitioners pleading for marriage equality, the time is ripe to see how laws and hatred have stopped love.

Photo of an Indian couple holding hands.

Indian couple holding hands.

Sreemanti Sengupta

KOLKATA — When 34-year-old Krishna Gopal Chowdhury (he/him), a designer hailing from Kolkata in the eastern region of India fell hopelessly in love over the internet with Anisuzzaman Khan aka Anush (he/him), a fine arts practitioner from Bangladesh, he knew that his love was up against some of the toughest hurdles these countries had to offer.

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Chowdhury flew to Bangladesh in September 2019 with a surprise proposal, and the couple kissed at Dhaka Airport ignoring startled gazes, in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Thereafter, Anush faced harassment, torture, and shaming at home, and relocated to Kolkata, settling on a work visa.

Happily staying together since 2022, this inter-faith, inter-country, same-sex couple is a bold statement on the resilience of love against man-made social, religious, and legal barriers.

Unfortunately, however, they also symbolise just how difficult it is to fall and stay in love in India, in a time and age where intolerance, hatred, and violence seem to be at an all-time high. The Narendra Modi government’s stand in the Supreme Court, opposing same-sex marriage, is yet another show of intolerance towards the sexual minority.

Mutually exclusive identities

Given that the LGBTQ+ community is a minority and can offer only limited support to its members, the growing atmosphere of religious hatred in the country has isolated them doubly. When Chowdhury, who is a Hindu, adopted the predominantly Muslim “Mehfuz” as his middle name, in a show of solidarity with his partner, and started observing Islamic festivals as a way to experience his partner’s culture, he started facing backlash from his Hindu acquaintances among the queer community in India.

“They asked me if I had converted to Islam and if I ate beef. During a Yoga session in the Himalayan town of Hrishikesh, participants had schooled Anush on how India is a tolerant country but Bangladesh tortured Hindus. Several Hindus from the community stopped inviting me to their pujas at home,” Chowdhury said while describing how religious hatred had further divided the already-vulnerable community.

He remembered how a queer friend from Hyderabad quizzed him on his faith. “He was exposing his own hypocrisy. The same person had told me stories about sexual encounters with young Muslim men. When you can sleep with a ‘beef eater,’ what’s the problem in loving a person of that culture and faith?”

Like Krishna and Anush, 32-year-old Rayyan (she/they), a Muslim transfeminine and pansexual content creator from Mumbai has been on the receiving end of prejudice for their faith and sexual orientation, both.

“Surprisingly, India’s queer community treats ‘Muslim’ and ‘queerness’ as mutually exclusive identities and is uncomfortable about merging the two. Even devout Muslims who pray five times a day and wear salwar kameej have to leave behind their Muslim identifiers when they go to queer parties.” What they meant is, being visibly Muslim would isolate them within the community.

Love jihad 

It is not just about sexual minorities. Marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women have become particularly dangerous, as there are non-family and non-state actors who get involved and make a mess of the situation. India’s Hindutva groups are calling such marriages ‘love jihad’ – a false phrase for the bogey of a conspiracy launched by Muslim men to lure Hindu women into the trap of marriage with the aim of gaining numerical superiority.

Last November, two families in Maharashtra had to cancel the reception to be held after an interfaith couple’s wedding after Suresh Chavhanke, the head of Sudarshan TV and well-known for spreading hatred against Muslims, tweeted a photo of the invite, revealing the address of the venue, calling it a case of ‘love jihad.’

This February, at Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly, members of Bajrang Dal roughed up a couple, accusing the man of ‘love jihad.’ When the police reached the spot, they took the couple to their station where they also summoned the couple’s parents. No case was registered against the Bajrang Dal vigilantes, as the police said the ‘aggrieved parties’ decided to settle it mutually.

“Interfaith marriages are becoming not only difficult but also dangerous. In Maharashtra, the state government’s recently-formed committee to monitor couples in interfaith marriages has increased the risks of couples living away from family for safety reasons,” said Vishal Vimal, an interfaith and inter-caste marriage activist based in Maharashtra. “Governments are making the lives of interfaith couples tougher,” he said.

Even as the Supreme Court, in February, expressed its intention to hear a batch of petitions challenging recently-enacted laws restricting religious conversion for the purpose of marriage, and sought responses from states that enacted such laws, the situation on the ground remains critical.

Photo of a \u200bPride parade in Kolkata, India.

Pride parade in Kolkata, India.

Sudipta Das via Zuma Press

Divisive forces gaining strength

Interfaith and inter-caste relationships have always been difficult in India but it is easy to see how the situation has worsened since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power.

For marriages of interfaith couples solemnised under personal laws such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi, and Jain Marriage Acts, the bride usually converts to the groom’s faith before marriage. For those who do not want to involve religion or priests, there is the Special Marriage Act 1954, which is also used in interfaith and intrafaith marriages.

However, since 2017, several Indian states, most ruled by BJP – Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand and Karnataka – have framed laws restricting religious conversions for the purpose of marriage, laws that have colloquially earned the nomenclature of ‘love jihad laws.’ For those who prefer the Special Marriage Act, there is a threat of vigilantism.

For marriage under the Special Marriage Act, the couple will have to serve a notice to the marriage officer 30 days prior to the date of marriage and this notice will be put on display at the marriage registrar’s office for people to raise objections. This helps prevent fraudulent marriages, it has been argued. But in recent years, such notices given by interfaith couples, especially involving Muslim men and Hindu women, have gone viral on social media, often jeopardizing planned ceremonies and inviting threats.

“The atmosphere of fear among interfaith couples has significantly increased and such couples are now exposed to safety and security threats,” said Athira Sujatha Radhakrishnan, who is based in Bengaluru. In 2020, she found to her utter shock that her marriage notice had gone viral on social media and later found a PDF document in circulation on WhatsApp containing a list of 120 interfaith marriage applications, including the one of her with her fiancé Shameem, compiled as cases of ‘love jihad’ going to take place.

“We could navigate through the situation perhaps because we were more privileged compared to many others and we also had access to support mechanisms,” she said, adding, “Most couples wouldn’t initially get permission from the parents. They will first have to deal with their parents, then with their safety and financial stability. They will not have the time to take up the larger battle. Therefore, we decided to take the legal battle one step ahead and petitioned the supreme court for removing the clause mandating prior public notice.”

While the apex court in 2022 dismissed her petition, arguing that she was no longer ‘aggrieved’ as she had completed her marriage, there are others who have filed similar petitions in court.

Riling up the conflict further, Maharashtra recently announced the formation of a committee named Interfaith Marriage: Family Coordination Committee, which is to monitor interfaith marriages and will try to connect the women in such marriages with their parents. As alleged by social workers, the government seems to be tightening its noose around inter-faith couples by making conversions nearly impossible yet largely necessary, exposing them to communally driven hate crimes.

Wading a sea of impossibility

Large swathes of northern India are known for the notorious practice of ‘honour killing’ – in which family members kill the daughter or her inter-caste/inter-faith lover to protect family respectability.

Though the Supreme Court had, in a landmark verdict in 2018, upheld consenting adults’ choice to love and marry as a part of their fundamental rights, and issued a set of guidelines for the protection of such couples, the clauses in these new anti-conversion laws serve the exact opposite purpose – they expose the couple before family members.

“The government’s objective is clear – there should not be any inter-faith marriage in India. I am okay with the fact that you are establishing laws preventing conversion in interfaith marriages, but then why are you not simplifying the civil marriage laws via the Special Marriage Act?” says Asif Iqbal, founder of Dhanak For Equality, a non-profit organisation that fights for the fundamental right to choose a partner and raise awareness about the same.

Asif is hinting at the confusing web of legal paraphernalia that the government has instituted that gives the false sense of justice but if executed is a clear attempt to strangle the individual’s freedom to choose a partner.

Filmmaker Q has similar opinions hailing love to be a power that is as threatening as it is vulnerable: “When you are in love, you are completely disarmed and opening up your most vulnerable self to the person you love and inadvertently to the society around. In a traditionalist society like ours, ruled by a brutal hierarchy of caste and class, this creates a big impact, and therefore rules are tightened around love that is inter-caste, inter-class or inter-faith.” he says, reinforcing the central idea expressed in his 2009 documentary titled Love in India which explored the complex web of contradictions that love and sex create in the conservative land of Kamasutra.

Will love survive in India amid politically manipulated hatred? Rayyan, a true believer in the potential of love, is still wading through a sea of impossibility. “As a Muslim, it is impossible to be apolitical in India. I cannot chain my religion and censor my voice for the sake of social acceptance” they say.

Hoping for at least some things to change, Supreme Court lawyer Arundhati Katju tweeted a photo last Tuesday of herself with her legal partner, Menaka Guruswamy, accompanied by the caption “Equality before the law, and the equal protection of the laws” and the hashtag #marriageequality.

This was just about an hour before they were set to enter a big battle not only in their professional but also personal lives – the beginning of the final hearing in the Supreme Court, seeking marriage equality. The advocate duo had played a pivotal role behind the apex court’s striking down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), that decriminalised homosexuality, in 2018.

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