For everyone in India, the end of this year, just like the end of the previous one, brings another new question on the notion of belonging. Last December, the Citizenship Amendment Act passed, inspiring significant protests, including the iconic Shaheen Bagh peaceful sit-in which was dismantled when the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown began in March of this year. The notion of belonging addressed then was about nationality, about paperwork or its absence that could render a person either enfranchised or stateless. Now, another question on belonging arises through the passage of Uttar Pradesh’s Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, known popularly as one of the ‘love jihad’ laws. Madhya Pradesh intends to follow suit, with its paradoxically named Freedom of Religion Bill 2020. Karnataka is considering similar legislation. The question of belonging that these concerns is this: who does a woman belong to? Its base is the belief that a woman cannot belong to herself.
The ‘love jihad’ laws, even in their terminology, appear to criminalise one religious community. But in the fortnight since U.P. passed theirs, the most reported of their seven (and counting) cases reveals another target. The first woman to be held under the law was a 22-year old of Hindu background who is married to a Muslim man. She was arrested upon a complaint lodged by her mother. The woman says that she was administered injections that forced a miscarriage in custody. Officials deny her story.
The very concept of ‘love jihad’ is based on the idea that Muslim men with nefarious intentions use marriage to forcibly convert Hindu women. It negates any agency on a woman’s part. She is property, and the owners of that property (family in collusion with public authority, or vice versa) do not wish to transfer that property to a man they disapprove of. Forget the law for a moment and look at the sentiment that undergirds it: an adult woman belongs to her parents, the nation-state and her husband; her personhood and body are not her own; her human rights can be suspended if she acts autonomously.
This week in Bihar, something like an episode out of the Mahabharata happened: a man allegedly gambled away his wife in a game. His friends sexually assaulted her; he also attacked her with acid. We can be wilfully impervious and say this was a twisted anomaly. Or we can acknowledge that such atrocities don’t happen in a vacuum. He believed he owned her. It’s this fundamental belief that plays out across a spectrum of oppressive/abusive behaviours and societal norms, culminating in legislation that sanctions the same.
Whenever a cruel new law is brought into force, many people express shock. But legal passage takes time, and cannot happen unseen in a democracy. Democracies also become non-democratic through the assent of citizens, who pay no attention to emerging changes, then feel as horrified as if the ground shifted beneath their feet. Then, they accept the status quo – and are shocked once more by the next ethical earthquake. But all this was warned of years ago, and more dire warnings hang in the air. Are we listening to what’s coming next?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 19th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.