Anti-Conversion Laws in India Incentivizing Criminalisation of Muslims?

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The passing of the anti-conversion legislations and bringing inter-faith marriages under its ambit is lending legitimacy to the propaganda of “love jihad” and unleashing a legal weapon for witch hunt of Muslims.

NEHA DABHADE | Clarion India

ON June 17, 2021, Maya (name changed) went to the Gotri police station in Vadodara. Maya was facing domestic violence at home at the hands of her husband, Sameer Abdul Qureshi. The police instead filed a case under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021 against Qureshi for forcefully converting Maya and marrying her. This is increasingly becoming the fate of inter-faith couples in Indian states where anti-conversion laws are passed, restricting inter-faith marriages and incarcerating Muslim men under the false propaganda of “love jihad”.

However, caught in this web of propaganda under the aegis of a discriminating ideology seeking to criminalise young Muslim men and contributing to Muslim othering, the women face the prospect of their marriages being ripped apart and their agency systematically undermined. Maya too has a similar story. She never imagined that her visit to the police station to file a complaint on account of domestic violence would result in harrowing turn of events – false and even obscene allegations against her husband, figment of imagination of the police, in weaving together a false case and narrative in total disregard of the facts stated by Maya in her complaint and the arrest of her husband under this draconian law. A fact-finding committee consisting of Hozefa Ujjaini, Samina Malek, Khairunnisha Pathan, Kherunnisha Saiyyad — social activists, visited Vadodara and unearthed the facts of the case. They also obtained copies of the FIR filed by the police and affidavit filed by Maya refuting the allegations in the FIR.

The FIR filed by the police (yes, police, not the complainant), states the following facts. Maya was befriended in February 2019 by Sameer Abdul Qureshi over social media where he faked his identity as Sam Martin, leading Maya to believe that he is Christian. Later he forcefully took Maya to a hotel room and forced her against her will to have oral and unnatural sex with her. During these repeated sexual encounters, he clicked nude pictures of Maya without her knowledge. He threatened Maya to make these pictures viral. During these repeated forced sexual encounters, Sameer impregnated Maya thrice. On two occasions, he made her abort the foetus by consuming oral medicines and on the third occasion since the pregnancy was in an advanced stage; he took her to the hospital to undergo the abortion procedure. Soon later, he took Maya to a religious place and converted her forcefully into Islam and changed her name to Suhanabanu. He forcefully performed Nikah with her.

So far this narrative fits perfectly well with the imagery carefully and doggedly cultivated by Hindutva proponents of the “lascivious” and “virile” Muslim men who lure and rape Hindu women in order to convert them into Islam. It’s an age old trope which situates women’s bodies in the central body politic of communalism – women as war spoils devoid of agency and self determination. Maya in this instance was allegedly converted by force after being sexually exploited. The FIR further states that Maya went to live with Sameer and his parents in their house. She was harassed after the marriage too and she was not allowed to practice her religion but forced to follow the faith she was converted to. When she refused to follow the religion of Sameer and his family, casteist abuses were hurled on her. According to the FIR, the in-laws too were physically abusing her. Her life was allegedly threatened and she was facing severe physical and mental trauma.

The above narrative depicts a grim picture of depravity. It makes us believe how Hindu women are indeed being lured by Muslim men through social media, fall prey to fake identity and eventually raped and converted. However, when Maya obtained a copy of the FIR, she was shocked to read the narrative written in the FIR which she found completely false. She was compelled to file an affidavit in the court to tell her version of facts. In the affidavit dated 24th June, 2021, Maya’s version paints an entirely different picture from the one of the FIR. She states that she befriended Sameer Qureshi through Instagram in February 2019. Though the account name showed ‘Sam Martin Rider’ on instagram, she affirms that below that the ID ‘Sameer Qureshi’ was clearly mentioned. Thus, she was aware that Sameer was a Muslim. They became friends and started meeting often. This resulted in a love affair. She goes on to say that they used to frequently go to hotels and have sexual intercourse which was consensual and out of their own free will. She was not forced into having sexual intercourse.

She admits that she became pregnant and underwent abortion out of her own will since Sameer was underage and couldn’t marry her yet. She feared defamation if her pregnancy came to light and thus took oral medication to abort the foetus. Sameer didn’t force her to abort. The second time she was pregnant, they went to the hospital for abortion where again Sameer hadn’t forced her. She categorically refuted the allegations that Sameer forcefully had sex with her, took her naked pictures and threatened to make them viral. She called these allegations utter lies in the affidavit. She further affirms that she didn’t make any of these allegations in the FIR filed by the police.

She further clarifies that Sameer’s identity was not hidden from her family. Sameer used to frequently come to her parents’ house to meet her and talk to her parents. He was aware that they belonged to the Dalit caste and they were aware that he was a Muslim. When Sameer came of age, Maya and Sameer got married in front of their families with their blessings. They first performed Nikah and then married in the court under the Special Marriage Act. In fact her parents signed as witnesses in the court. Their marriage certificate states that they got married under the Special Marriage Act on 22nd March. Nikah was performed on 16th February, 2021.

Neeraj Jain from Hindu Jagran Manch has been pursuing this case with the police. Ironically, he claims that he was approached by Maya’s family because they were not aware of Sameer’s real identity! In the backdrop of Maya’s Marriage certificate and her affidavit, this seems incredulous but not entirely surprising. Hindutva vigilante organisations have embarked on a witch hunt and reach out to and most of the times pressurize the families of the women to file false complaints. Hindutva organisations are thriving given that very few are punished for their vigilante acts – be it lynching or acting as moral squads or “anti-romeo” squads which have ideological blessings of the regime and sometimes overt support. Neeraj Jain incidentally along with other members of the Hindu Jagran Manch is named in the FIR by Anand police pertaining to the Khambhat violence which has named members of the Hindu Jagran Manch for illegally organising a gathering and delivering provocative speeches in 2020 (Indian Express, 2020).

Maya’s affidavit also outrightly refutes charges that her in laws were mentally harassing her. Maya affirms that Sameer’s family treated her well. However, since they belonged to different religions, there were some cultural differences that arose between them. These differences led to arguments and fights. She got upset and went back to her parent’s house. She went to file a complaint against her husband for physical and mental abuse. She vehemently denies that her complaint had anything to do with religious conversion or forced sexual relationship. She also clarified that neither Sameer nor his family hurled any casteist slurs on her. In the affidavit, she has expressed her shock on seeing the copy of the FIR which leveled false charges against Sameer and his family which defames them and her. In fact she goes on to state in the affidavit that she still loves her husband and wants to live with him. She urges the police to withdraw the charges in the FIR against Sameer and his family. Maya has in fact approached the High Court to quash the FIR.

What does this case tells us? It tells us that in spite of the findings of the SIT in Kanpur and NIA investigating inter-faith marriages where no evidence was found of criminal design, the cauldron of communalism has been deliberately kept boiling by the ruling regime. Not only does it serve the purpose of firmly embedding a malicious narrative in public imagination, but it is also incentivizing the police to blatantly fabricate false cases against Muslim youth. Wherever the police come across inter-faith couples, the police are arbitrarily booking the Muslim men through draconian laws like the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021 by concocting their own narratives. These narratives have no grain of truth and stand contrary to what the women have to say. For instance, staggering 63 FIRs were filed under Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021 till 8th July. Out of the 63 cases, seven cases were closed after no evidence was found against the accused. Around 80 are behind bars in these cases (Rai, 2021).

The question that then arises is why the police are acting in such a manner? The police so to say are toeing the ideological line drawn by their political bosses. The passing of the anti-conversion legislations and bringing inter-faith marriages under its ambit is lending legitimacy to the propaganda of “love jihad” and unleashing a legal weapon for witch hunt of Muslims. The police too are aware of it. In order to align with the ideological agenda of the ruling regime and all it’s worth in terms of patronage and promotions, the police is going out of its way to bring Muslim youth in the ambit of the law even it means by concocting far fledged false stories. In Maya’s case from a legal point of view, the law is applied retrospectively – the marriage took place on 22nd March and the Gujarat Freedom of religion Amendment Act 2021 came in force on 15th June, 2021. It’s not uncommon that upright police personnel who discharge their duty with utmost integrity and impartiality are in fact penalised by their political bosses resulting in what are called as ‘punishment postings’. Thus the answer to the acts of the police lies in the very structure- discriminatory laws to fulfill an exclusionary political agenda.

The discussion on anti-conversion laws often misses the most crucial point. That of women and their voices. Women’s agency is brutally usurped in such cases is a moot point. However, such laws have other implications too. In a misogynist society like India where domestic violence is rampant across castes, religions and class denominations, such blatant fabrication by the police will deter victims of domestic violence to seek remedy under the law. The fear that the system will somehow twist the woman’s complaint to entrap her husband will largely lurk in the conscience of the women. They might sadly prefer to be victims of domestic violence than to get ensnarled into the complicated web of politically motivated cases which will destroy their marriages altogether. In the case of Maya she very clearly states that she still loves Sameer and wants to live with him. And most women like in the case of Maya want this option. However, these laws only result in infantilizing women and their voices. This law portends entrenchment of location of women as possession of families and communities- not as entities having independent legal rights.

In conclusion, one can only hope that there is a deeper circumspection of these laws and all its implications. The concerned police officials should face legal proceedings to break this system of incentives to criminalise Muslim men. Also the question of women’s agency begs for larger debates across political spectrum by recognising that such laws are essentially misogynist and only pretend to “protect” them, yet again a patriarchal assumption.

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Neha Dabhade is associated with Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs and comments by readers are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Clarion India.

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