Garba is synonymous with Gujarat, instantly bringing to mind graceful dance moves, religiosity and nights that tend to get longer as the annual Navratri celebrations begin amidst a riot of colours.
Madhya Pradesh does not boast of the same scale of festivities as its neighbour but it occasionally draws attention to itself when some members of the ruling BJP insist the festival of nine nights is a fertile ground for `love jihad’.
“Love jihad’ is a conspiracy theory used by Hindutva groups to accuse Muslim men of converting Hindu women by either disguising their identity or ensnaring them with false promises of love only to abandon them later.
Less than a fortnight before the celebrations begin, MP Tourism, Culture and Religious Trust Minister Usha Thakur has revived the `love jihad’ bogey again. “Garba Pandals have become a medium to facilitate love jihad. Entry should be allowed only after checking the identity of (male) participants, ‘’ the 56-year-old minister said in Gwalior. She did not need to elaborate that she was asking for Muslim men to be kept away from garba venues because she had said so in the past.
When she first advocated religious profiling of men to deny them entry in pandals in 2014, the legislator from Indore district had quoted a `survey’ to claim that 4.5 lakh Hindu women convert to Islam during and after the festival of nine nights. There was no explanation on which organisation conducted the survey and where.
When Thakur made the astounding claim she only headed the Culture cell of the ruling party. Now she is the Culture Minister in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. She did not invoke the survey again but suggested the threat was still potent.
The BJP has been in power in the central Indian state since 2003-end barring the 15-month rule of the Congress from 2018-end to early 2022.
In the wake of Thakur’s 2014 campaign, the district administrations in Indore and Ujjain had made I-cards compulsory arguing that they were doing so from purely law and order point of view and that there was no government order for religious profiling. Luckily, the celebrations were peaceful. Some posters displayed in communally sensitive Dhar town asking `non-Hindus’ not to enter garba venues were removed by the local administration.
BJP MLA from Bhopal (Huzur) constituency Rameshwar Sharma had backed Thakur then and launched his own campaign later.
But unlike 2014, Thakur’s assertion has come a year-and- a-half after the BJP government armed itself with a stringent anti-conversion law that provides for a maximum punishment of ten years for fraudulent conversions. The new legislation does not use the term `love jihad’ but its unstated objective is to check interfaith alliances and marriages.
Before moving the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill in the assembly, Home Minister Narottam Mishra dwelled extensively on `love jihad.’ Because no garba festivities had been allowed due to the pandemic and the next celebrations were a year away he did not link the two.
Both Mishra and CM Chouhan referred the bill as `love jihad bill’ and both wanted to take credit for bringing a stringent law. The legislation shifts the burden of proof to the accused, provides for right to maintenance and inheritance right, and makes 60-day advance notice for those seeking to convert willfully.
Unlike 2014, the MP government has not acted on Thakur’s prescription yet. Incidentally, Chouhan had distanced himself from Thakur’s assertions by keeping mum in 2014 but took cognizance of the `love jihad bogey’ a few years later.
The Opposition Congress has had a tough job on hand to articulate its response on the issue with some merely suggesting religious profiling was not good, and some leaving it to the government to tackle if such a menace does exist.