Three days after Hindu-Muslim riots convulsed Muzaffarnagar in Western Uttar Pradesh in September last year, I went to meet Lalit Maheshwari, the VHP's local coordinator.
He told me that the anger that fuelled the riots had been building up for over a year because of 'Love Jihad' - increasing instances of organised gangs of Muslim men who concealed their religious identity to seduce Hindu women with a view to converting them. Around the same time, the VHP began a campaign against 'love jihad' in nearby towns and villages, even bringing in sadhus from Haridwar to preach to their audiences. When I asked for proof of this sinister conspiracy, he produced a booklet priced at Rs. 15 titled 'How to Save Our Women from the Terrorism of Love Jihad', containing a handful of case studies. Most had a familiar storyline: a young Hindu woman, lured into a relationship or into marriage by a Muslim man who had allegedly posed as a Hindu.
Those who got married often converted to Islam, he said, and had to be 'rescued', sometimes with the intervention of groups like the VHP. There was nothing in the booklet that suggested the widespread conspiracy of the title - no link between one case study and the other, no proof of organised groups at work.
Given this, it could well be argued that these are simply examples of young women (and men) falling in love and breaking the highly oppressive social taboos of Western UP, then being forced by family disapproval to break the alliance and return home. In such circumstances, where crossing a religious or caste boundary carries the risk of death, it's entirely plausible that problematic affiliations - caste, or in this case religion - are concealed from parents of both sides. I asked him if he had something more concrete, for instance proof of a high rate of conversion of Hindu women in his area. He didn't.
It's perhaps for these reasons - the highly-suspect evidence, the prospect of intervention in the fraught realm of the personal - that the Sangh Parivar's more mainstream affiliates had chosen to keep a wary distance from 'love-jihad'. But at some point, the needle shifted.
That point, according to Hukum Singh, who is from the BJP and represents the constituency of Kairana in Parliament, was the alleged gangrape in July 2013, a month before the riots, of a Dalit girl by four Muslim men in the town of Shamli, an hour west of Muzaffarnagar. The local BJP unit led by Hukum Singh held a large demonstration against the incident, accusing the police of inaction. The police lathi charged the protestors, and the Kairana case resonated across the region.
It is for this reason, Singh told me, that Muzaffarnagar exploded into violence a few weeks later when two Jat cousins, who had allegedly killed a young Muslim man named Shahnawaaz for harassing their sister, were killed in retaliation by a Muslim mob in the village of Kawwal.
But as we reported then, the FIR filed by the Jat boys' family does not refer to female harassment. It mentions instead a clash between motorcycles of the two sets of boys which spiraled out of control .
In an interview to us, the young woman whose harassment had reportedly incited the two sets of killings, says she did not even know the Muslim man who had allegedly stalked her. These inconsistencies were drowned in a highly-charged, politically-driven clamour built around reinforcing the 'threat to Hindu women' version, which in turn stoked popular anger.
Even if the 'woman dishonoured' theory were proved to be true, how did a seemingly isolated instance of the harassment of a young woman in a village explain a planned 'jihad' against Hindu women? To this, Hukum Singh simply referred me back to the Shamli rape, which, while deplorable if true, has not been backed by any proof of conspiracy either.
In other words, the entry of the BJP into this sphere of Hindu-Muslim complexities has not brought in greater diligence; if anything, its backing has ensured that the 'love jihad' juggernaut has rolled outwards, using as its template the Muzaffarnagar Model: launch high-decibel, aggressive campaigns around individual instances of alleged Muslim misogyny. The higher the pitch, the better the ability to drown out any inconsistencies, and the easier to derive sweeping generalisations about conspiracy. When confronted with pesky questions about proof, use each case to validate the other, a self-fulfilling chain reaction. So Shamli validates Muzaffarnagar which validates Meerut which validates Faizabad. (Some have even sought to reference the Rotherham trafficking scandal, in northern England: the quest for self-validation travels wide).
In another breath-taking leap of logic, a project centered around seduction-conversion has been reformatted as a Muslim conspiracy to inflict violence on Hindu women, sexual or otherwise. One may well ask how a conspiracy meant to lure women into marriage gains by raping, abusing or killing them. But then we have sailed far away from the shores of logic. We are now very much in the waters of cynical political calculation, the sole basis for the BJP's entry into the murky waters of 'love jihad'.
The notion of a Muslim conspiracy to commit acts of sexual violence /misogyny has been a potent way for the BJP to permeate popular imagination with two major anxieties around the Samajwadi Party regime: lawlessness and minority-pandering. And what better laboratory to test the waters with this new rebooted version ('Love jihad' 2.0?) than Western Uttar Pradesh, a region not known to be kind to its women, and where it's quite easy to see why a theory that outsources violent misogyny to another community would gain legs, no questions asked.
It's another matter that as with the original episodes in Kawwal and Shamli, the 'marquee' cases that followed, around which newer, more vociferous claims are being made, rest on thin ground. In the case of the alleged gangrape and conversion of a young Hindu woman in Meerut in August this year, multiple inconsistencies in her statement have surfaced. But this has not led the BJP/VHP (now acting in tandem) to yield an inch from its position that this is unquestionably 'love jihad'. Instead, any doubts raised by the media have been viciously shouted down as undermining the credibility of a 'braveheart'. In Faizabad, the murder of a Hindu woman, allegedly by a Muslim man, saw BJP Vice-President Vinay Katiyar arrive the next day, stoking an already-charged atmosphere by declaring the killing as 'love jihad'. Proof? None so far. The family of the victim, through their grief and anger, matter of factly stated that they did not know if their daughter knew the man accused of killing her, but that in their village there was never any tensions between Hindus and Muslims, and that the entire matter, while shattering, had in their view no 'Hindu-Muslim' dimension. It was, in their eyes, a case of a horrifying assault on their daughter by a man.
This is the other damaging legacy of 'love jihad': at a time when the Prime Minister from the Red Fort held men - all men - accountable for crimes against women, and spoke of a moratorium on communal tension, some of his party colleagues (and ideological affiliates) have embarked on an aggressive campaign that does exactly the reverse - selectively demonise one community as violent sex predators in the most communal terms.
The Meerut episode only exacerbated this rhetoric. When we looked at data for crimes against women in Meerut Range (comprising of six districts), it showed that in 2013, it recorded the most rape and dowry cases and the second-highest in kidnapping of women in Uttar Pradesh. We then asked the administration in Meerut to give us a break-up of rape cases by the religious identity of accuser and victim for the same administrative region. Given the sensitivities surrounding the identity of victim in cases of sexual violence, we had to depend on them to collate the data. They could initially only give us the breakup for Meerut district. According to the information they shared with us, 37 cases of rape were registered in Meerut district since the beginning of this year. (The data was simply of cases registered in which sections pertaining to rape were applied. No names of accused or victims were shared with us). Of the 37, in 30 cases (81 %) the accused were Hindus, in 7 (19 %) they were Muslims. At a glance, this belied the Sangh Parivar claim of an epidemic of organised rapes by Muslim men in Meerut.
Two days later, the administration shared with us data for the same period (January - August 2014) for Meerut Zone, comprising the nine districts of Western UP. There were 334 cases in all. This time, they had broken up the data into cases of Hindu victim and Muslim accused (25 cases). and Hindu accused and Muslim victim (23 cases). The number of cases of Muslim accused and Muslim victim was 96, and Hindu accused and Hindu victim was 190. We reported this as a continuation of what the earlier data demonstrated: that there is no proof of a Muslim-perpetrated rape epidemic. If anything, the numbers show that the greatest threat to Hindu women, are, broadly Hindu men, (as Muslim men are to Muslim women) - a commonsense conclusion now borne out by numbers. Or perhaps not.
In this baffling, lengthy piece the columnist Rupa Subramanya chides us for drawing misleading conclusions on the basis of raw data. We should have - as she does - converted the data into percentages of population for both communities, which demonstrates that Muslims have a greater propensity to rape than Hindus. This, according to her, is the BJP's case to begin with. Ergo, we have helped the BJP. I was initially tempted to ignore the post, given the writer's propensity to engage on twitter in highly offensive terms, a habit that sits at odds with her need for intellectual validation.
But given the wide circulation the blog received, it seemed contingent to briefly point out the specious logic underlying it. We didn't feel the need to parse the data on the basis of propensity because that is not - contrary to the writer's belief - the BJP/ VHP's case. Nowhere do the proponents of 'love jihad' even remotely acknowledge that both communities are guilty of terrible crimes against Hindu women, but that one has a greater propensity to commit those crimes than the other. (Unless the writer is privy to BJP/VHP speeches along the lines of "our men are raping 'our' women. But that's just raw data. The only thing to remember is that their men are raping our women at a higher propensity. So it's all good. Also, love jihad is real.").
The entire strategy is to amplify cherry-picked instances of sexual violence - where the religious calculus is Hindu victim and Muslim accused - to insinuate that virtually the sole threat to 'our bahu-betis' is a conspiracy by 'their' men. To us, the raw data was enough to raise questions about this premise. The only number crunching we may have overlooked is this: of the total 334 cases, there are 215 cases where the victims are Hindu (women), of which in 190 cases - 88 % - the accused are fellow Hindus. I will leave it to the more data-literate to judge which community poses the real threat to western UP's 'bahu - betis.'
Before this prompts another extensive lesson on statistical literacy, we are not, as the author seems to suggest, using the data to arrive at a definitive conclusion. Which is why our reporting of the numbers is not in a vacuum but in the context of an ongoing attempt to scrutinise both the specific instances used to bolster the existence of 'love-jihad', as well as the wider conclusions drawn from those instances. Which is why our headlines say "claims don't add up", or "contradicts claims", not "it's official: 'love-jihad' is not real".
On the other hand, the BJP feels the need for no qualifiers. And yet the writer's conclusion that "we simply don't have the quality of data.. to conclusively either confirm or refute claims that one community or the other has a greater propensity to commit violence" has not led to a similar 10,000 word demand for post-facto rigour from the ruling party, whose (by her own admission) baseless pronouncements are leading to a very real, very damaging impact on public safety and social amity.
On the upside, I learnt a new term - regression analysis. The internet told me this is 'used when you want to predict continuous dependent variable from a number of independent variables'. Personally, 'regression analysis' struck me as a wonderful title for an enquiry into why a section of the BJP is sliding backwards into 1990's-era rhetoric of Hindu grievance.
As of now, the indications of a BJP course correction on 'love jihad' are confusing. While no one from the higher echelons of the party has spoken out publicly against the state unit's adventurism, it's widely held that cancelling the insertion of 'love jihad' into the resolution of the UP unit of the BJP's executive meet was an indication of the high command's tacit disapproval. And yet, I received a call earlier this week from someone in the VHP about a coordination meeting of all Sangh Parivar groups in Muzaffarnagar - BJP, RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and so on - to assign roles to each outfit. It was decided that the BJP would not leap into communally-charged protests on issues 'love jihad', because it has led to too many of the its leaders being slapped with police cases. But the BJP would support the VHP in such crusades 'from behind'. To quote his exact words, 'woh hamara peeche se support karenge.'
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