The ‘Love Jihad’ Conspiracy Theory: An Explainer
In January 2023, hundreds of supporters of right-wing Hindu political parties organised a march in Mumbai against what they refer to as ‘Love Jihad’. It’s a term originally used to describe mixed-faith relationships in India, which many considered contentious. Now, however, it has become shorthand for the conspiracy theory claiming Muslim men are pretending to be Hindu to seduce and marry Hindu women, converting them to Islam in the process.
The Mumbai marches were the culmination of a month-long campaign designed to draw attention to Love Jihad. The theory’s proponents maintain that the phenomenon is so widespread, action must be taken to protect women from falling prey to its perpetrators.
The protestors cited several incidents as evidence. Hindu student Nikita Tomar was murdered by her boyfriend, Tauseef Ahmed, in 2020. During his trial, the prosecution alleged that Ahmed killed Tomar after she refused to marry him and convert to Islam. Ahmed was sentenced to life in prison. Hindu sales assistant Shraddha Walkar was strangled to death by her partner, Aftab Poonawala, in 2022. Despite there being no clear proof that Poonwala is Muslim, campaigners claim Shraddha’s murder is another case of Love Jihad. Poonawala is yet to be sentenced.
This recalibration of the Love Jihad theory is just one symptom of a broader increase in Islamophobia in India. In September 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that Indian authorities’ institutional bias and their increased use of excessive force against Muslim communities is “sending a message to the public that Muslims can be discriminated against and attacked”. While there are governmental changes afoot to criminalise forced religious conversions, the reframing of Love Jihad as an act of criminal aggression by Muslim men does more than fuel further religious discrimination in the country.
Indian activists and commentators say advocates of the theory are discriminating against the same group they profess to protect: women. Speaking in a recent episode of India’s SheThePeople podcast, Bollywood superstar and women’s rights campaigner Richa Chadha points out that the Love Jihad conspiracy theory “has become politicised, a manufactured debate to control women’s bodies”.
In other words, along with the vilification of Muslim men (and, by association, Muslims in general), the implication of Love Jihad theorists is that women are weak and when it comes to choosing a suitable partner, their judgement is not to be trusted. Domestic violence campaigner Kavita Krishnan describes the current Love Jihad incarnation as “an attack on a woman’s right to love someone of her own choice”.
Award-winning Indian writer, academic and civil rights activist Meena Kandasamy argues that Indian women’s agency over their own decisions is being confiscated. “Love Jihad is a concept created by the right wing to demonise Muslim men, and to infantilise Hindu women – who happen to be the majority community here,” she says. “It’s just another weapon for an extreme right government to polarise the people further, and to ensure women are constantly monitored, controlled and under vigilance – disempowered.”
Simon Coates is a London-based writer and artist whose work has appeared in publications including The New European and Scottish newspaper The National