The murder of Nikita Tomar has re-ignited the conversation around the much-debated idea of Love Jihad. Started as a fringe conspiracy-theory back in the latter half of the 2000s, this idea has now entered mainstream politics with some states even seeking to enact laws based on it. The conversation has now reached a point where it would be unwise to dismiss this term as election rhetoric and examine it for what it’s worth.

First, let’s start with the definition of ‘Love Jihad’, as we currently don’t have a legal one. For now, I treat it as a case of fraud where a Muslim, usually a man, fakes their religious identity in order to marry an individual, usually a woman, and later forces them to convert to Islam. This isn’t a theory that only fringe Hindutva groups promote but has also been a complaint shared by Christian bodies in India.

In 2018 a similar idea was floated in Britain, called ‘Muslim Grooming Gangs’. The said gangs were groups usually led by British-Pakistanis, who would take up false identities in order to manipulate and capture young girls, forcing them into prostitution. This prompted popular discourse in media including a much-debated controversial report by Quilliam, ‘world’s first counter extremism organisation’. It accused 84% of group-child-grooming gangs to be led by ‘South-Asian Muslims’. The study, however, was refuted by many with claims of selective data mining.

Despite many promises, one from former Home Secretary Sajid Javid himself, laws for mass grooming of children in terms of heritage or religious identity of the accused haven’t been incorporated in Britain yet. Meaning, even a country with a far better record than India in terms of law and order has found it difficult to whip up a legislation that deals with a similar issue. So, when state governments promise regulations, what exactly are they going to propose?

Second, where does consent lie in this case? When one talks of ‘mass-grooming’ it is clear that the victims are minors, so the very idea of consent goes out of the picture. However, with adult women, who are the prime targets per the definition provided, the law will have to figure consent into consideration. If an adult makes a decision as personal as marriage, does the state really have a say in it? If yes, why and where does it stop? If no, what becomes of the problem of love jihad?

A part of it was answered when a law official gave a brief about the legislation saying, “The law in Uttar Pradesh would be quite similar in nature which would make religious conversions a complex and cumbersome procedure.” A translation of it would mean making an interfaith marriage a bit more difficult, without truly denying the right to do so. Is the government assuming that a fraud would give up because of red tape? Given that bodies campaigning around the issue have presented it as a conspiracy to change demographics led by seasoned conmen working with a machinery, are they really expected to stop because of complicated paper-work?

Things take a further turn to the grey realm when one entertains the idea that the state, in the garb of this paperwork, can deny interreligious marriages. Assuming this happens, it would be a direct attack on an individual’s right to choose their partner, and given the campaign has been exceedingly focused on women, the law is bound to disproportionally target them.

In fact, the popular conversation around the theory has more-or-less infantilised women and have treated them as gullible beings. Look at the statement by Uttar Pradesh CM, Yogi Adityanath – “I warn those who conceal identity and play with our sisters’ respect. If you don’t mend your ways, your ‘Ram Naam Satya’ (chant associated with Hindu funerals) journey will begin.” His idea of love jihad is clearly centred around women, and that there needs to be a third-party interference to protect them.

It is not being implied that there aren’t cases where Muslim men fraudulently pretend to follow other faiths in order to marry women but so far, no state has provided any data to back the claim. For all, we know it could be a trick picked up by unrelated men in order to woo women of other faiths. Even R Jagannathan, when making a case for love jihad being more than just a patriarchal construct accepted that “one need not deny an element of patriarchal thinking behind the idea of ‘love jihad.’” The linked article elaborates on three particulars to back up the idea that it’s more than just about denying women choice but for that, as the article points out, there needs to an honest conversation.

This brings us to a key element of the problem – intellectual dishonesty while dealing with the subject. Liberal hypocrisy for having different standards for Hindu and Muslim radicals is a documented phenomenon. It hasn’t done any good for either community, but they stick with the idea for reasons best known to them. However, for the left and liberal commentators, ‘Love Jihad’ has been a case which does not deserve any entertainment. The fundamental failure in their approach, is that when a series of crimes have a common string, it becomes necessary to scrutinise them and try to figure the root of the problem. This liberal denial that certain crimes can be led by concentrated community hate-groups was one of the reasons which resulted in the delay in capturing the perpetrators of the infamous Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal, as investigators were ordered to look for ‘people from other ethnicities.’

Hence, it wasn’t surprising to see Communist Party member Kavita Krishnan, when confronted over the issue, resort to name-calling as she tweeted, “Hey Swati. Poop India saying something doesn’t make it true.  All the “love jehad” cases Sanghis have claimed, have been refuted by the women involved. Why is a case in which a Hindu man cheats a Muslim woman, not called love jehad??!!” ‘Poop India’ is a term used for the right-wing portal OpIndia, which wasn’t a part of the conversation. She refused to respond to multiple links that people tweeted to her. The most prominent amongst them was Swarajya’s story about the working of love jihad, where they list down cases where women had given explicit details. Refuting it as a Sangh conspiracy denies victims the respect they deserve and fails to address the root where the problem might be stemming out from.

This doesn’t mean that the people batting for the theory have something concrete. First, no data has been released by the government which validates their concerns. Second, the stories which are available in the public domain have failed to amount to evidence of existing machinery which explicitly works on this model. We’ve seen dramatic ‘exposes’ by groups like India Today, but not one of them could be held by concrete standards as they were mired by cheap rhetoric and exaggerated claims.

In fact, the ball is clearly in state governments’ court. They are the ones who need to prove that such a conspiracy exists. They are the ones who need to release data in the public domain which can be studied before coming up with a law. Popular stereotypes and vague stories cannot be the basis of a law.

Failure to follow this step will have dangerous consequences. Starting from disenfranchising interfaith marriages to depriving women the right to choose whom they want to get married to, a haphazardly placed law can make things ugly. Interfaith marriages may be a divisive issue but that doesn’t mean they need to be banned or halted, simply because the society at large doesn’t get to dictate what an individual wants to do.

The laws are being suggested with no clear definition, disregard of consent and absence of meaningful dialogue–this is a dangerous path. There needs to be a conversation beyond shallow optics. If at all there is a problem, prove it. If there isn’t one, address the victims without name-calling and whataboutery. Until then going ahead with laws is a ridiculous idea at best, denial of basic rights at worst.