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Inside the struggle of inter-faith couples in India

March 28, 2023
tags:#India, #Islamophobia, #religious freedom, #Hindu nationalism
by:Sanjana Chawla
The legal and social hurdles faced by Indians of different faiths who wish to get married is yet another testament to the deep religious divide in the country. But rights advocates believe there is a way forward.

Parveen Ansari and Ram Singh Yadav from Delhi were no different from other high school sweethearts who wanted to get married after graduation - except for the fact that they observe two different religions. Ansari is a Muslim and Yadav is a Hindu, and in India, this introduces far more hurdles than spiritual ones. 

"Our journey hasn't been an easy one," Ansari, who works at Dhanak of Humanity, a Delhi-based nonprofit supporting inter-faith and inter-caste couples, told FairPlanet. "We loved each other and were serious about each other, but we are from different religions, [and] eventually decided that none of us would convert [...] if we were to marry." 

This decision, however, was a tough pill to swallow for their families, and had quickly led to a community feud. 

Ansari's father confiscated her phone, restricted her travels, followed her everywhere and forbade her to go out, while Yadav's father threatened to kill him if he refused to end things with his girlfriend.

"My brother also threatened to kill me, as he thought I brought shame to the family," Ansari said. "[Our families] were completely against the idea of us marrying or being together, and they started looking for prospective partners for us. But we were certain of being with each other." 

Growing animosity between Hindus and Muslims

Though religious pluralism is a core pillar of Indian society, a 2021 study conducted by the Pew Research Center highlighted that Hindus make up about 79.8 percent of the Indian population, while Muslims account for only about 14.2 percent. The intermingling of people from these two communities has been riddled with violence and discrimination.

"The topic of interfaith marriages has been difficult to address in the last 20 years, and even now continues to be challenging, as several States of the country have jumped in and are deciding for all," Asif Iqbal, Dhanak of Humanity's co-founder, told FairPlanet. 

Iqbal, who is a Muslim, married a Hindu woman in 2000 under the Special Marriage Act. the couple had faced opposition not only from their families, but also from the Sub Divisional Magistrate in their jurisdiction. Having experienced challenges in the process of getting his interfaith marriage registered and noticing similar cases around, Iqbal went on to start his NGO.

The religious chasm between Muslims and Hindus in India has a long history, and in recent years has been further yawning, particularly following the passage of a citizen amendment act in 2019 that offers citizenship to unauthorised Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Buddhist, and Christian immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered India before 2014 on the grounds of religious persecution - and excludes Muslims from the list. The passage of this act had sparked nationwide protests. 

With far-right public figures fueling the fire, religious differences had turned into political ones, and at times became violent

The rising antagonism between the two religions in India is manifesting in interfaith dating. In relationships where the woman is a Hindu, descriptors such as Love Jihad are used to describe the relationship. It is said to be a "conspiracy by Muslim men to lure and convert Hindu women."

Despite not exactly fitting the narrative, Ansari has also faced pressure from her community for dating a Hindu man.

She shared, "The head and committee members of the mosque near my house advised me against the decision of marrying Ram. They said that he could be a member of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and would’ve been paid to lure me.

"They also alleged that RSS is funding him, and that he would make me convert to Hinduism and initiate the process of 'Ghar Wapsi' (Returning Home in Hindi: often used to refer to the conversion of people into Hinduism)."

But even in cases where one decides to convert to a different religion for the purpose of marriage, the courts often don’t recognise these conversions.

India's anti-conversion legislations prevents interfaith unions and makes unlawful conversions a cognizable and non-bailable offence. These are most prominent in the case of Hindu and Muslim couples who choose to marry each other.

The country’s right-wing Hindutva groups, such as Vishva Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, are continually looking to halt such unions. 

India’s Special Marriage Act: "When Personal becomes Public"

Amid the restrictions imposed while marrying outside one’s faith, India’s Special Marriage Act (1954) , which allows interfaith marital unions without conversion, appears as a silver lining for all couples - irrespective of their religion or caste.

But Ansari and Yadav's experience has nonetheless been challenging, despite the existence of the Act.

As per the law, all couples who want to marry under the Act have to give notice of their intention of marrying each other to the Marriage Officer of the district they are applying in. They also have to wait 30 days while the notice of their marriage is displayed at a conspicuous place. 

The display of notice can present a hurdle, as anyone (within 30 days) can object to the couple's marriage. 

In Ansari and Yadav's case, when they went to get their documents verified, the officer told them that he would be sending the notice to their homes. As many Indian couples live together with their families before and after marriage, they were worried that the notice would rekindle conflicts.

"We knew that it was not mandatory to send notices to our homes since Ram and I are from Delhi," Ansari recalled. "But the officer talked to us slyly and threatened us. He also suggested Ram to take me to an Arya Samaj Temple and have a religious marriage since he is a Hindu."

Within 10 days of their interaction with the officer, notices were sent to their homes. What followed was a series of conflicts. "Because of this, our families threatened us as well as one (out of the three) of our witnesses who eventually retracted which caused a delay in our marriage."

Parveen added, "If we were of the same religion, we would have simply gone for an Arya Samaj Wedding (as per the Hindu rituals) or for a Nikkah (as per the Muslim rituals) and gotten married within a day or two. But because of our religious differences, we opted for the Special Marriage Act and faced constant threats as we waited for 3 months to get married."  

Iqbal said that this is a loophole that needs to be addressed by the government's legal instruments, since it also has been challenged by the Supreme Court and the High Court. If not addressed or tackled, the Act will become redundant and start to wither away. However, if the latter happened, Iqbal asked, "Where will these couples go and how will people of different faiths marry?"

The Way Out: "To Hide or Unhide"

Yadav and Ansari got married in May 2020 and have been living away from their families ever since. Despite the boycotting and exclusion, their relationships with their own and each other’s families have improved over time.

But Parveen said, "Even now, Ram’s family wants me to adopt Hinduism and my family wants him to adopt Islam. But we both stuck to our faiths while being with each other and we are glad we took this decision."

The Special Marriage Act does not mention the challenges faced by interfaith couples.

According to Iqbal, "There is a need for proper segregation and differentiation of laws to offer timely and correct justice. Only when proper laws protecting the interfaith couples will be introduced can they be helped."

Such couples also require proper rehabilitation and support, Iqbal added, since the they face physical and mental trauma, separation anxiety and guilt. To overcome this, the directive of the Supreme Court on the opening of safe houses and special cells for couples in each district should be acted upon and implemented, he said. 

Ansari suggested that it is important for an interfaith couple to be financially independent to ensure their survival, as Indian couples often live with their families after getting married.

She continued, "We could decide to move out of our homes and rent a flat only because both of us were earning for ourselves.

"Secondly, we stood firmly on our decision and held on to it even when our families, neighbours and close friends looked down on us because we went against our parents." 

Without both legal and social support from the government, a real resolution for interfaith couples will not be possible, concluded Ansari.

Correction (27 July 2023): An earlier version of this article mistranslated the term Hindu Rashtra as 'Hindus are in danger.' 

Image by Asif Iqbal

Article written by:
Sanjana Chawla 2
Sanjana Chawla
Parveen Ansari and Ram Singh Yadav.
© Parveen Ansari
Parveen Ansari and Ram Singh Yadav.
“Our journey hasn\'t been an easy one. We loved each other and were serious about each other but we are from different religions. So, we eventually decided that none of us would convert or change our religion if we were to marry\'
© Parveen Ansari
“Our journey hasn't been an easy one. We loved each other and were serious about each other but we are from different religions. So, we eventually decided that none of us would convert or change our religion if we were to marry"
Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak of Humanity.
© Asia Iqbal
Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak of Humanity.
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