COMMUNAL: IT is online forums like the Goan Observer and The Wire which have taken up the challenge of the myth of love jihad. Indeed, the Supreme Court made it clear that there is no ban on inter-community or inter-caste marriage. BJP ruled states are banning inter-community marriages, claiming that they are covertly converting Hindu girls into Muslims.
By Soumiya Kalia
Online portals like the Goan Observer , The Wire, Scroll and Laundry have filled in the gap and continued to keep the flag of dissent and freedom of speech and expression alive, while print and television media have become government gizzards!
India Love Project and Project Anti-Caste Love are taking over the digital space to celebrate a love that goes beyond caste, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and age – all social markers.
Zainab Darukhanawala and Sinu Daniel have been married for two years now, but their love story has been 10 years in the making. They met each other 12 years ago, a meet-cute that translated into regular dates. By the time they set up a meeting for their respective sets of parents in 2014, they had self-confessedly fulfilled all tropes and cliches around love.
And then, reality rapped on the door. Their faiths – one was a Bohri Muslim and the other an Orthodox Syrian Christian – enforced an unsaid ban on any exchange of affection. Their families tacitly reinforced it. “Conversion was always a topic of immediate fights on both sides since both families and religions need conversions to perform the marriage ceremony,” Zainab wrote on Instagram.
Zainab and Sinu’s post-wedding shoot on Vasai beach. Photo: Instagram/India Love Project They briefly broke up. But when they went on to pursue their MBAs in the same college, the will to be with each other took over. In February, 2019, they registered their marriage.
Which faith did their wedding belong to, then?
“Ironically, we went to a divorce lawyer to help confirm that our marriage is indeed not governed by either religion.”
They shared their tryst with love, religion, and societal maxims on India Love Project, a web initiative which is home to stories like theirs. Founded by the journalist couple Priya Ramani and Samar Halarnkar, and their friend Niloufer Venkatraman, the effort is a celebration of non-normative love – one that upends the boundaries of current societal imagination.
Within 120 days, the Project’s web pages have evolved into a community of more than 37,000 people. “In a country increasingly fractured by false narratives over religion and love,” Halarnkar says, “We see India Love Project as an attempt at unity, a chronicle of passion outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity and gender.”
Also pioneering this resistance is Project Anti-Caste Love, a platform that started back in 2018, when conversations around non-normative love were grievously non-existent. It has rallied for a unique discourse around caste and its interplay on love and relationships.
Going strong on Instagram, it shares love letters of partners in ‘unconventional’ relationships and has now emerged as a learning archive to hold discussions on and interrogate social dogmas. It is the brainchild of actor, writer and activist Jyotsna Siddharth, who is also the founder of the Dalit Feminism Archive. Caste, she aptly notes, is inextricably linked to all social experiences.
As platforms like these upend narratives around one of the oldest institutions in India, they manufacture hope, giving it faces, voices, and emotion.
‘Chronicle of passion’
The desire to establish a discourse around love firmed up last year for Samar, Priya, and Niloufer. “A year ago, as this ‘love-jihad’ nonsense worsened, we imagined a place where couples who pushed the boundaries of faith, caste, etc. could share their stories, inspire others like them and simply make us all feel good about love,” Halarnkar says.
In October, 2020, a Tanishq advertisement found itself in the line of sight of right-wing Hindutva activists, reviving the uproar around the rightwing bogey of ‘love jihad’, for which there continues to be no evidence. The conflict in this idea is apparent: the tenderness of interfaith love needed to be countered with a made-up anti-Muslim spectre.
India Love Project was an immediate and robust response to this. The decision to breathe life into the Project happened overnight. They feared “love jihad” was being “weaponised and normalised” at an unprecedented scale. The first post was co-founder Niloufer Venkatraman’s account of her parents — Bakhtawar Master and S. Venkatraman. A Parsi woman marrying a Hindu Tamilian man had sought opposition from within family, but the couple remained unfazed and got married in the summer of 1958.
“My parents intentionally gave their three children Parsi first names and a Tamilian last name — they said we should be proud of ‘both identities’,” she wrote in the caption.
The intent and impact of the platform were clear. To the team, it revealed “the possibilities of love without traditional straightjackets, love that can serve as a beacon of hope to others in the same situation,” Halarnkar says.
The website, along with its Instagram and Twitter pages, pieces together an alternate reality of plurality, acceptance, and kindness. Each day brings a new story of people finding love across religion and caste, outside of gender binaries and class barriers. The stories pierce geography and time. Love can be seen blooming in the shadow of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and the 1991 Babri Masjid demolition; in cities big and small, with customs new and old.
What inspired over 100 couples to share their stories? “One type of people are those who want to share their stories,” Halarnkar explains. “But the majority are people who have taken the decision to make a statement…People saying that we haven’t really spoken about this before, but we are so disturbed by what’s happening.”
What was ‘happening’ was the growing political, social, and now legal scrutiny around interfaith marriages. Three BJP-ruled state governments had recently passed laws to penalise ‘forced’ conversions for marriage, with others expressing support and proposing plans of their own. Halarnkar points out that these laws are constitutionally invalid, noting that last year, the government communicated to the parliament that no such term as ‘love jihad’ exists and no such cases have come to attention.
Inter-faith love is already rare in India. About 90% of marriages are within caste and only 2.2% of all marriages, by this estimate, are interfaith. “But these are still large numbers, and such marriages are more prevalent than we imagine,” Halarnkar points out. And what better way to counter something that is fake, he says, with something that is real. “Nothing could be more real than these stories.”
Political and social mirrors
In India, love and marriage ought to fit into a mould. Or so we’ve been told, by self-proclaimed agents of culture, interpreters of scriptures, and rigid notions of purity. Caste, class, gender, and religion silently lend themselves to the complexity of love and relationships.
And that was Jyotsna Siddharth’s grouse with the world. Three years ago when she started Project Anti-Caste Love, she noticed the lack of conversation around this. Her experience of facing discrimination along the lines of caste in personal and professional relations — she herself identifies as a Dalit queer woman — prompted her to ask a question: what does it mean to come from a low-caste community and experiencing love and relationships?
Her exploration and answers, then in the form of an unpublished MPhil thesis, took the shape of a robust and evolving digital community. Love and relationships in South Asia were framed in intersections, and Project Anti-Caste Love was a lens at understanding this discourse.
“When you choose to be with someone, that choice itself is political,” she says. “And our experiences of intimacy and love are essentially caste experiences.”
In India, caste considerations are implicit in all spheres. It determines and entrenches social standing, who one marries, what their political affiliations are, how they live and breath. Transgressions carry the weight of unthinkable, brutal consequences. By one estimate, between 2010 and 2016, the crime rate against Dalits rose by 25%. Hostility and violence against inter-caste couples or those from oppressed castes have been well-documented, indicating an upward trend.
Yogesh Maitreya posted a poem on the platform, undergirding the magnitude of caste barriers in personal relationships. “You loving me is not the same as I loving you,” it says, “I am betraying my ancestors who were killed by your ancestors.” The intangibility of a social bias can be felt all too well.
For Project Anti-Caste Love, love is political – rooted in our social, cultural upbringing which defines our understanding of love, desire and attraction. The platform shares love letters pulsing with emotion and expression, giving life to a feeling otherwise dismissed. These were like archives, she explains, while talking about letters as the right medium for the platform, that could provide a lens to relationships and the anxiety surrounding it. The letters themselves don’t feel obligated to talk about institutional moulds — their experiences act as a conduit in unerringly relaying caste discrimination.
Vidhi Kundaliya (left) wrote a goodbye letter in 2014 in Gujarati to her now-husband. Photo 2: Jagisha Arora shares the struggles of an intercaste relationship in a letter to Prashant Kanojia.
Over three years, ongoing conversations around inter-caste relationships, interracial and interfaith relationships have allowed people to unlearn and re-learn, respond and engage. Poignant and powerful love letters — cutting across cities and languages — ask what it means to desire and love under the unyielding lens of social structures.
“Love is courage, an outlier, love is powerful to break boundaries, biases and borders. Love is an antiseptic to our pain. Sometimes, love is enough,” one dispatch avers. These carefully-crafted letters symbolise hope and defiance, strongly making a case for how love and relationships are personal and political in equal measure. One can note how most do not carry a name or other details that can put the writer under scrutiny. Intimidation, threats, and violence are all tangible realities faced by inter-caste couples in India. The platform, then, provides a safe space for intimacy to be explored and accepted. “In the last three years,” Jyotsna notes, “the platform has achieved an organic and beautiful camaraderie within the community that we’ve managed to create.” Love visibly transcended social dogmas, and these letters cemented this rebellion.
She has spoken to an overwhelming number of people in the course of this initiative, understood their trauma and experiences with families, friends and partners. The Project is a symbol of that resilience, she says. “Through this platform, I’m able to have conversations with various kind of people because this is an aspect that is crucial and part of our lives. This resonates with people, who continue to respond and engage.”
Much is gained
The internet is no longer a novelty and that has allowed platforms like India Love Project and Project Anti-Caste Love to bloom into safe, kind places of affection, appreciation, and acceptance. Readers, contributors, and founders of both platforms see the internet has having inspired a revolution of love.
“From emojis to sexting, a large part of courting is online. Our stories, too, spread through social media, and it is through social media that people hear of stories that inspire them to write to us,” says Samar Halarnkar.
The downside, of course, is that a stream of trolls flood comments and messages with vitriol. For India Love Project, the trolls have been limited and ineffective, Samar notes. Whenever the hate comes, it directs itself at one particular content: stories of Hindu women marrying Muslim men. Any union like this invites Islamophobic sentiments mostly by people harbouring a Hindutva ideology.
“It’s also a little difficult for trolls to argue with this because these are real people and these are living stories. So who are you to tell us that this cannot happen or is not happening?” Another challenge is that of language – all stories are in English at present. Seeing how the narrative of “love jihad” is more rampantly being spread across the north Indian Hindi-speaking belts, ILP is self-aware of the gap. It hopes to eventually expand into carrying posts in Hindi and other regional languages for greater access and inclusivity.
Jyotsna concurs with the language barriers, and has been consciously giving a boost to narratives that are often overlooked. The Project has carried letters in Hindi and other regional languages, a reflection of the diversity that sits at the heart of it. As it gained momentum, it also makes an effort to organise Instagram Live interactions and conversations in Hindi for greater inclusivity and access.
While complex ideas such as caste and religion can only be covered to an extent in the digital space, the 33-year-old notes that the platform puts a formidable fight in challenging skewed social hierarchies.
‘Let there be love’
As a seasoned digital initiative, do concerns of longevity plague her? She answers in the negative, noting that the Project can go “as far and as deep as the people who find meaning and continue to participate.” The response to the Project has been surprisingly pleasant for her — the collective experience of interrogating love and redefining it has been affirming for her.
“Over three years, the Project has grown into something I never thought it would,” she says reflectively. “The Project continues to teach me and hopefully during the course of this, I’ll be able to have more insight into what the Project is becoming.”
A postcard from France to Hyderabad
For the Project, love is beyond meek abstractions. It takes the form of radical love, love of change, political love and love that goes beyond caste, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and age – all social markers. Jyotsna envisions a better, positive, and critically sound world, one that accepts. The stories and hopes these dispatches carry keep her ambitious buoyant. “It’s the people I work with and people who engage with me that have been inspirational and motivational,” the humbly notes.
“There are many struggling to battle their way through and we have been getting requests for help and advice. We have connected people involved in a couple of such cases with counsellors, but recognise that we need to streamline our efforts if we are to really be of assistance,” Samar says. The next step for India Love Project is to curate resources, get lawyers on board, and hold offline and online conversations to help couples navigate legal and social challenges.
Are these platforms an act of defiance, then, or unassuming love letters to India? “I think it is both,” Samar says. It is seen as defiant only because of the polarising times, he notes, referring to the “love jihad” furore.
But the true purpose these projects serve is in preserving gentle love letters across a nation at war over its heart and soul.
Saumya Kalia is currently an editorial intern at The Wire. She has previously written for The Caravan, Outlook, Arré and The Citizen, amongst other platforms.