Victor Mallet in Bhopal, India
Chandrashekhar Tiwari is a conservative Hindu and he is convinced that India’s Muslims are waging “love jihad” – plotting to seize power by seducing Hindu women and converting them to Islam.
Rightwing groups assert that this latest form of religious warfare is sweeping across the entire country. “We call it a conspiracy, because they think if they increase their population they will rule our country like they have created Pakistan,” says Mr Tiwari, who heads the regional branch of Sanskriti Bachao (Save Our Culture), a conservative Hindu movement. “Hindus will become a minority.”
According to Mr Tiwari, the seducers are paid according to the status of the Hindu victims, with wealthy high caste women worth the top rate of Rs600,000 ($9,600).
Liberals, Hindu moderates and leaders of India’s Muslim minority scoff at such claims, noting that different communities have coexisted in India for centuries and done so more or less peacefully since independence and the bloodshed of partition in 1947.
Across India, Hindu men marry Muslim women, who often then convert to Hinduism, just as Muslim men marry Hindu women. “I know intermarriages because I am a child of one and my children are born out of it,” wrote Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan in a recent column in The Indian Express. “Intermarriage is not jihad. Intermarriage is India.”
But the “love jihad” theory was given a new lease of life by the overwhelming general election victory of Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party six months ago.
Energised by their triumph at the polls, Hindu fundamentalists have campaigned to prevent Hindus converting to Islam or Christianity – something that usually happens because of a mixed marriage or the desire of low-caste Hindus to seek refuge in a more egalitarian religion.
Bhopal, the Madhya Pradesh capital in the heart of India, is typical of the country’s complex and multicultural history. Said to have been founded by a Hindu raja, it was laid out in its present form by Dost Mohammed Khan, a Muslim warrior from Afghanistan, in the 18th century.
But last month Sanskriti Bachao activists in the city attempted to prevent a marriage between a Muslim man who repaired water coolers and a Hindu graduate and tried to persuade them to abort their child, although police said the woman was a willing bride.
In another town in the state, nine Muslims were recently arrested and accused of having converted several Dalits – the low-caste group once known as “untouchables” – to Islam. Under the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, passed in the 1960s to prevent forced conversions, it is a crime to convert someone without notifying the local authorities.
Communal strife erupted across India in 1992, when Hindu fundamentalists demolished the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya at the site where the Hindu god Ram was said to have been born.
“Before 1992, we didn’t know [at school] who belonged to what religion,” says Bhopal hotelier Anjali Singh, who was a Muslim named Uzma Raza until she married her Hindu husband, Dhananjay Singh, 18 years ago.
Intermarriage is not jihad. Intermarriage is India– Saif Ali Khan, Bollywood star
“Bhopal was totally different from the Bhopal of today,” agrees Mr Singh. “There was actually a cultural pride, even in terms of the Muslim religion . . . Indian culture has survived for thousands of years and several invasions that lasted hundreds of years. When you’re looking at a multi-faceted society like ours, you have to be inclusive.”
Hindu-Muslim tensions have long been exploited by politicians at election times, while consumerism and globalisation have undermined the authority of old-fashioned conservatives from both communities.
Indeed, Hindu traditionalists are often as worried about western influences as they are about Islam – Mr Tiwari condemns fashion shows and drunken parties as well as religious conversions – and some Indians say the country is simply in the throes of a modern social revolution.
Ira Trivedi, author of India in Love, a book about marriage and sexuality, says there is no real proof of any “love jihad” plot by Muslims. “But the reality that there’s a lot more inter-caste and inter-religion marriages – that’s a truth,” she says.
Young Indians are increasingly choosing their own partners, she says. “India has had cultural divides, caste divides and religious divides for centuries, and in 2014 all this is breaking down. So there’s a tremendous backlash coming from that older set . . . be they parents, grandparents, politicians [or] village councils.”
That backlash is much easier to handle for wealthy, educated Indians in cosmopolitan cities than it is for poorer couples in small towns and rural areas.
Sanjay, a Hindu driver who secretly married his childhood Muslim sweetheart a year before they told their horrified parents, says his wife has adopted Hindu customs in their home, while their two children ignore religious differences and know how to say “salaam aleikum” to their Muslim grandparents. Full acceptance by either community, however, seems a long way off.
“That label is there that the mother is Muslim and the father is Hindu,” says Sanjay, whose desire to remain anonymous shows how sensitive the issue remains. “In India this will continue to matter. I don’t think it will go away in the future.”