The police in northern India have made their first arrest under a new anti-conversion law intended to curb “love jihad” — a highly contentious term used by Hindu nationalists who accuse Muslim men of luring Hindu women to marry them in order to convert them to Islam.
The arrest in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh came days after state legislators there approved the law aimed at curbing interfaith marriage, which makes forced religious conversion by marriage an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The law is the latest in a series of measures that have steadily marginalized the country’s Muslim minority, one of the world’s largest, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party came to power in 2014.
Muslims have faced a wave of violence at the hands of Hindu nationalists, and last year, the Modi government enacted a blatantly anti-Muslim citizenship law that critics said was the most alarming indication yet that it was trying to turn India into a Hindu-centric state.
The man arrested Wednesday, Owais Ahmad, was accused of pressuring a Hindu woman who was married to another man to leave her husband and convert to Islam so she could marry him. The police said the woman’s father had previously filed and later withdrawn a kidnapping case, after his daughter had eloped with Ahmad in 2019 but then returned.
The recent complaint was filed by the father a few days before Wednesday’s arrest, which the district police said was the first under the new law.
“I have no link with the woman,” Ahmad, who is in his early 20s, told reporters. “I am innocent.”
One of the main proponents of the anti-conversion law is a firebrand Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath, who is the head of Uttar Pradesh state and a member of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Similar bills have been considered in other states controlled by the party, including Haryana, Karnataka, Assam and Madhya Pradesh.
In Madhya Pradesh, Netflix recently came under fire after Hindu nationalists demanded that authorities investigate a scene in the television series “A Suitable Boy” depicting a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy kissing against the backdrop of a Hindu temple.
Adityanath has long been accused of rousing anti-Muslim sentiments. Electoral officials reprimanded him for hate speech, and he once called Muslims “a crop of two-legged animals that has to be stopped.”
Since coming to power in his home state, a post often seen as a springboard for future prime ministers, Adityanath has made efforts to make the term “love jihad” mainstream and has openly called for India to be enshrined as a Hindu nation, which has deeply worried many of the country’s 200 million Muslims.
He once created a volunteer vigilante organization, the Hindu Youth Brigade.
In 2007, following the death of a Hindu youth in clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Adityanath’s home state, he said, “If one Hindu is killed, we won’t go to the police. Instead we will make sure we will kill 10 Muslims.”
He was later arrested and held in custody for 15 days.
Intermarriage between Muslims and Hindus is relatively rare in India because of conservative norms.
While the country remains overwhelmingly Hindu, nearly 80%, the focus on interfaith relationships by anti-Muslim forces has been criticized as an attack on the country’s secular constitution, which guarantees equal rights to all citizens regardless of religion. Issues involving marriage, divorce, alimony and inheritance are handled differently among religious populations.
To bolster secular ideals, India in 1954 overturned a British colonial-era law that required either the bride or groom in an interfaith marriage to renounce his or her faith.
Faizan Mustafa, an academic and a Muslim, said he was horrified at the speed with which many states with Hindu nationalist governments were racing to legislate against allegedly forced religious conversions.
He said that this law was against the very idea of India and that the governing party was trying to divert the attention of people from rising unemployment, an ailing economy and its failure to stop the spread of coronavirus.
“They are taking away freedom of people to choose,” Mustafa said, “which has been given to us by the constitution of this country.”