Using 'Love Jihad' as a Rallying Cry, Sanatan Sanstha Attempts to Communalise the Konkan

The Aaftab-Shraddha case seems to have given Hindu right-wing organisations a free hand to create a polarised atmosphere in places where no communalism exists.

On November 12, 2022, the Delhi police arrested a man who had brutally murdered his live-in partner and chopped her body into 35 pieces. The man was named Aaftab and the deceased woman’s name was Shraddha. In India, people emphasise last names, as they usually identify a person’s caste. But in this case, the Indian media did not require last names. The story of an Aaftab murdering a Shraddha was enough to play up the news on prime time.

All possible questions of patriarchy and misogyny were conveniently ignored as the media made a spectacle out of the tragedy of a Muslim man killing his Hindu girlfriend. This was the kind of case that the Hindu right-wing craves. The rhetoric of ‘love jihad’ was pushed so much that it became a part of regular WhatsApp discussions. The whole Muslim community of India was once again made accountable for a crime committed by just one man.

It was only a matter of time before those WhatsApp discussions had their effect on real life. The story I am sharing with you today is personal, but the implications of this story are wide-ranging. My story is about ‘love jihad’ and how these two words have given Hindu right wing organisations a free hand to create an atmosphere of hate by organising micro-level campaigns to “make Hindu girls aware” of the “threat caused by Muslim boys”.

The first of its kind

My story is located in the small town of Chiplun on the western coast of India. Frequent travellers between Mumbai and Goa know Chiplun as a destination for leisure and good seafood. The town is at the centre of the Mumbai-Goa national highway and serves as a gateway to the Konkan.

The Konkan is the favourite location of polluting industries since it has an abundance of natural resources, while the modern town of Chiplun is the favourite residential location for the employees of these industries. Since the 1990s, this town has seen a tremendous rise in its market economy. People from nearby villages have settled in Chiplun for a better lifestyle and education. The town accepted all the migrants with open arms, even if it meant destroying its natural habitat and its crucial erosion-preventing mangroves for the purpose of construction.

Despite the dominance of the Hindutva agenda in the mainstream media and also on social media, Chiplun and the rest of the Konkan region have been devoid of communal violence for at least eight years now. Ironically, the last time Chiplun saw a Hindu-Muslim confrontation was on the eve of May 16, 2014, the day the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was elected to power in the Lok Sabha. That confrontation had been sparked by a piece of fake news involving Shivaji Maharaj.

Chiplun is my city. It is where I was born. My parents live there even today, though I work and live in Delhi. After months of enduring the polluted air of the national capital, I took a week off from work and headed to Chiplun, where the AQI is below 50 on most days.

Also read: Muslim Residents of Gujarat Village That Saw Public Flogging Boycotted Polls – But No One Cared

On December 11, 2022, at around noon, I received a phone call from my cousin. In disappointed tones, he said, “See what is happening in Chiplun! I never thought this could happen in our city.”

“What is it,” I asked.

“A few people have gathered in front of the municipality [municipal office] and are protesting against love jihad,” he said.

Love jihad. This term has been on the agenda of the ruling party ever since it came to power in India in 2014. In 2020, Time magazine called it a “baseless conspiracy theory”. In the same year, The Wire reported on how eight out of the 14 cases registered under the love jihad law passed by the Uttar Pradesh government were false and involved consensual interfaith couples. The first conviction under the Uttar Pradesh love jihad law came only in September 2022. So, the question of whether some organisations are making an issue out of a non-issue remains relevant.

But the term ‘love jihad’ was now being used openly in a small town like Chiplun.

I couldn’t believe it even for a second, given the background and history of the town. I left for the municipal office without even changing my clothes and asked another cousin, Faeez, to tag along. At that point, I had no idea who had organised the protest or what was being said there. I simply went to witness it as a journalist and also as a concerned citizen of a town that is not used to communal confrontations of any kind.

Permission to ‘protest’

The ‘protest’ was taking place right in the centre of the city, near the municipality building. About 30-35 men and women with saffron flags in their hands and provocative slogans on their lips were protesting under the banner of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a wing of the insidious Sanatan Sanstha headquartered in Goa.

The Sanatan Sanstha was founded in 1999 and is headed by one Dr Jayant Athavale. Though the organisation’s headquarters are situated in Goa’s Ramnathi village, they have a considerable presence in the state of Maharashtra and have offices in other parts of the country as well.

Athavale is considered by his followers to be an incarnation of both Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. The villagers of Ramnathi have carried out processions against the presence of the Sanatan Sanstha ashram in their village. They feel that Athavale’s claims are an insult to Lord Shiva.

This self-proclaimed God has been accused of conducting hypnosis on his followers, especially on women, in order to have sex with him. Members of the Sanatan Sanstha are closely linked to the murder investigations of rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. The Sanatan Sanstha also has a history of providing legal help to the accused in terror cases like the Mecca Masjid blast and the Malegaon blast. In fact, members of the organisation have publicly defended Sameer Gaikwad, the prime accused in the killing of Dabholkar. Gaikwad is also a member of the Sanatan Sanstha.

The fifth part of Vivek, Anand Patwardhan’s documentary film on eight major injustices in India, explains the functioning of the Sanatan Sanstha and the crimes of which they are accused. The documentary provides an insight into what the organisation’s actual motives might be.

So, the question of granting permission for a protest to an organisation with a history of terrorism and murder like Sanatan Sanstha at least deserves a second thought. Yet, here was this organisation in Chiplun, protesting ‘love jihad’.

During her speech at the demonstration, an old woman said, “Keep your girls safe, or else even they will be butchered like a goat. Hindu girls, wake up and don’t fall for false hopes. Your life will be destroyed.”

The ‘protest’ in Chiplun. Photo: Zeeshan Kaskar

I walked up to a female police officer and asked if the Sanatan Sanstha had taken permission to demonstrate. I also asked why the police weren’t stopping these people from raising provocative slogans. The officer said that they had the required permission, so I started recording the sloganeering on my phone, witnessing slurs that were quite unusual for this city.

Amongst the crowd, I saw two men, both of whom I have known since my childhood. In fact, I had had lunch with one of them at a wedding just three days earlier. I knew them as my father’s friends who work with the BJP. My father, Faisal Kaskar, is an ex-corporator and a local politician who has good relationships with people across party lines. Since I have a personal relationship with this BJP man, I decided to go to him and request him to not indulge in activities that would divide the people of Chiplun.

So I walked up to the crowd and said, “Talk about the importance of education or the problems of unemployment. Please don’t pollute the environment of a town which is not known for such things. I request you to not indulge in protests that will divide society.”

My father’s friends did not utter a word, though I thought I saw shame in their eyes.

I spoke for a maximum of 30 seconds and then I turned and walked away. A couple of men from the Sanatan Sanstha tried to grab my arm, but I resisted. Within a minute, I was surrounded by seven or eight policemen. Only a couple of them wore the regular khaki. The rest of them wore military-like uniforms. When I asked who they were, I was told that they were from a special Rapid Action Force (RAF) unit of the police. One officer, a Mr Munde, was cordial to me as he took my details while the members of Sanatan Sanstha tried to verbally intimidate me. Very calmly, I gave the police the details they required. Meanwhile, a person belonging to the Sanatan Sanstha took my photos. I smiled for those photographs.

Also read: ‘Concocted Charges’: Christians in UP’s Fatehpur Allege Harassment Over ‘Forced Conversion’ Claims

The new rules of society

I told officer Munde that I am a journalist and was there to cover the protest. I said that I had only requested the members of the Sanatan to not pollute the environment of the city and then had politely walked off without provoking or abusing them. Thankfully, my cousin had recorded the confrontation I had had with the Sanatan members, which made my case stronger. But the police were not prepared to listen to me.

They asked me to submit an affidavit in the police station if I wanted to raise an objection to the ongoing protest. I tried to reason with them, saying that I had only made a polite request, and that it is my constitutional right, not as a journalist but as a citizen of this country, to raise questions against anything that tries to disrupt the harmonious nature of society.

I said I knew some people amongst the crowd and waved at one of my father’s friends. He was in no position to defend me, even though he had known me for years. He solved his dilemma by whispering in my ear, “These are stupid people, ignore them” and then walking away. I don’t blame him for what he did. It was yet another reminder for me as to where this democracy is headed.

My cousin and I were taken to the police station in a jeep. A couple of RAF personnel aggressively argued that there was nothing wrong with the protest. I decided to stay silent and speak only to an inspector.

Chiplun is a small town, so we know the inspectors in charge of the station. Thus, I was confident in front of Police Inspector Ravindra Shinde. I also called my father and asked him to come to the police station in case the situation worsened.

Mr Shinde had been briefed by his officers so I had very little conversation with him. He said that he could not compromise on an issue of law and order and thus, he would have to give me a notice under Section 149 of the IPC. This notice told me that if I “indulge” in yet another act which disrupts public harmony, I will be charged under Section 188 of the IPC.

I see the notice given to me as yet another Orwellian prediction coming true. The provocative slogans by the Sanatan Sanstha went without notice while my sincere request to stop communalising the atmosphere of the town was seen as an act of “disrupting public harmony”. The notice I received is a clear comment on what the rules of society have become.

Answers required

The fact that only 30-35 people took part in this ‘protest’, even though the demonstration took place in a populous area of Chiplun, is reassuring about the actual number of people accepting the hate promoted by the likes of the Sanatan Sanstha. Even today, not a lot of people seem to agree with the organisation’s beliefs.

But on a larger scale, this incident raises many questions. Is the Sanatan Sanstha acting on its own, or does it have state support? Will the agenda be pushed in a violent direction in the buildup to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls? Is the Sanatan Sanstha targeting towns like Chiplun which have stayed away from communal polarisation? Will organisations like the Sanatan Sanstha amplify their agenda and will there be no stopping them?

These questions have many answers and no answers at the same time. Only time will tell if the Sanatan Sanstha will be able to change the opinions of people who have so far stayed non-communal. Or will the idea of India prevail in the minds of India’s Hindu majority?