Interfaith and inter-caste marriages have long been frowned upon in conservative Indian families, but in recent years, the conversation surrounding such unions has become much more fractious. And for alliances involving Hindu women and Muslim men, most scorn is reserved.
Last month, when the famous jewellery brand Tanishq pulled an advertisement featuring an interfaith couple after a right-wing backlash on social media, just how deep the chasm was brought into sharp focus.
The ad showed a baby shower organised by her Muslim in-laws for a Hindu mum-to-be. Owned by Tatas, one of the largest companies in India, Tanishq named its latest range Ekatvam – which translates as “unity” from Hindi.
The idea of “unity in diversity” was supposed to be celebrated, but it ended up doing the exact opposite – it revealed the fissures that exist in Indian society.
The commercial promoted “love jihad” by radical Hindu groups, an Islamophobic word that means that Muslim men prey on Hindu women to seduce them and marry them with the sole purpose of converting them to Islam.
Calls to boycott the brand were led by social media trolls, taking it to the top of Twitter trends. In a statement, the company said it withdrew the ad with the safety of its employees in mind.
The India Love Project was launched on Instagram two weeks after the row over the ad, by journalists Samar Halarnkar and Priya Ramani and their journalist-writer friend Niloufer Venkatraman, describing it as “a celebration of interfaith/inter-caste love and togetherness in these divisive, hate-filled times”.
Mr. Halarnkar told the BBC that they had been “thinking about the project for a year, maybe more” and that the Tanishq ad controversy lent it an immediacy, turning it into an idea whose time has come.
He told me, “We felt very strongly about – and were disturbed by – the fake narrative about love and interfaith marriage.”
“There is a narrative that there are other motives for marriage, more insidious, that love is being weaponized. But we didn’t know anybody who felt like that, who had any other motive than love for getting married.”
He says, “We are just providing a platform for people to share their stories,” through India Love Project.
A new story has been published every day since 28 October – when the project began with Ms Venkatraman’s first story about her Parsi mother, Bakhtawar Master, and Hindu father, S Venkatraman.
The response, Mr Halarnkar says, was overwhelming. “We are struggling to cope. Every day we hear from people who say ‘I want to tell my story, or my parents’ story or my grandparents’ story. It also illustrates that interfaith and inter-community marriages are not recent, they’ve been happening all the time.”
But, he adds, “it’s important to talk more than ever about them now.”
“It’s important to tell these stories of love at a time when hate is being created and how pervasive it is and that it’s not just a flash in the pan.”
More than 90% of all marriages are arranged in India – and families rarely look beyond religion and caste while alliances are fixed. Just approximately 5% of marriages are inter-caste, according to the India Human Development Survey. Perhaps rarer are interfaith unions – one report put them at just over 2.2%.
And those who want to marry outside these boundaries are frequently exposed to violence – and may even be killed.
Conservatism has gained popularity in India in recent years, with a Hindu nationalist government in power, and religious polarisation has grown.
And a much more sinister motive is attributed to interfaith marriages – particularly those involving Hindu women and Muslim men.
“In February,” Mr Halarnkar says, “the government told the parliament that ‘love jihad’ was not established by law and that no government agencies reported such cases, but the concept persists. At least four BJP-ruled states have announced plans to introduce legislation to curb this ‘social evil’ in recent days.”
It is this “hate narrative” that India Love Project seeks to challenge through its bank of personal stories, often referred to by readers as “warm and fuzzy.”
With affection and humour, the short 150-word stories are written and tell tales of couples who believe that love does not recognise boundaries created by man.
Rupa, a Hindu Brahmin, writes about the first reaction of her mother when she told her that she was intending to marry a Muslim, Razi Abdi.
Her mother said, worried about the tradition of instant divorce in Islam, now banned in India, “He’ll say ‘talaq, talaq, talaq” three times and kick you out.
“However, she writes, describing them as “relatively open-minded,” once my parents met Razi and realised what a great human being he was, their misgivings faded.”
30 years have passed since Rupa and Razi got married. They have two grown-up sons and celebrate the Eid Muslim festival and the Diwali Hindu festival in their home.
Writing about his marriage to Salma, journalist TM Veeraraghav says in their home religion isn’t “as important as curd rice versus mutton biryani!”
“I remain a vegetarian, she enjoys her mutton, and the result of our love [their child Ainesh] gets the best of both worlds. Depending on what’s cooking, Ainesh is a Hindu or Muslim.”
Tanvir Aeijaz, a Muslim married to Vineeta Sharma, a Hindu, writes in a recent post about the story of naming Kuhu as their daughter. The couple were asked if it was a Hindu name or a Muslim name? And what religion does their daughter follow as she grows up?
“It seems to trust the aspirations of people that our Hindu-Muslim marriage can be a role model of secularism,” he writes. “They are dumb, almost disappointed that our love must be called love, not jihad.”
There are also stories of other interfaith and inter-caste marriages in the Instagram account.
Maria Manjil, a non-vegetarian Catholic from a liberal Kerala family who married Sadeep Jain, a conservative North Indian vegetarian Jain, writes about the “many obstacles” they faced in their 22 years of marriage, but is convinced that by marrying him she did the right thing.
She writes, “How can you turn away from love?” “I saw his kind heart, gentle disposition, intellectual compatibility, and deep affection for me Just because he prayed to another god and spoke a different language, I couldn’t let him go.”
It’s stories like these that make you feel better about the world and about India, Mr. Halarnkar says.
”These are all beautiful stories of India’s myriad realities. People pursue so many different paths of love. They’re a reminder that India is a thing of that that’s what India is about.”
From some news agency