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Dehradun: Despite the fact that in November 2020, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttarakhand said that it would withdraw the state’s interfaith marriage scheme, which clashes with the state’s Freedom of Religion Act, 2018, the scheme still exists and one couple successfully registered for it in 2021.
The Freedom of Religion Act, 2018, is colloquially known as the ‘love jihad‘ law – a term which takes off from the unsubstantiated rightwing Hindutva claim that Muslim men act as part of a conspiracy to convert Hindu women through marriage.
However, the couple who registered for the scheme in 2021 have not yet received the Rs 50,000 that the interfaith marriage scheme promises successful applicants, even though the 28 couples who successfully registered for the state’s similar inter-caste marriage scheme in 2021 have all received the financial assistance due to them.
The interfaith marriage scheme offers a financial incentive to couples from different religions who wish to marry. It was originally established in Uttar Pradesh in 1976 by the Congress government to encourage residents to marry outside their religion to help create communal harmony and was inherited by Uttarakhand in 2000 when the state was formed.
In 2014, the Congress government in power in Uttarakhand raised the financial benefit of the scheme from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000 to further incentivise inter-religious marriages. However, in November 2020, it appeared that the state’s BJP government had had no knowledge of the existence of the interfaith marriage scheme because, two years after the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018, had been put in place, the government was blindsided by a press release from an officer of its own social welfare department that promoted the scheme and invited applications for it.
The Uttarakhand Social Welfare Department has revealed via a Right to Information (RTI) query that there were 14 beneficiaries of the state’s interfaith marriage scheme between 2016-17 and November 2021. Meanwhile, the number of beneficiaries of the state’s inter-caste marriage scheme in the same period was 191.
In 2016-17, there were just two beneficiaries of the interfaith marriage scheme, one from Udham Singh Nagar district and the other from Pithoragarh district, while the inter-caste marriage scheme in the same year had 23 beneficiaries, nine of them from Nainital district.
In 2018-19, there were 37 beneficiaries of the inter-caste marriage scheme, 11 of them from Haridwar, which recorded the maximum number of beneficiaries of the scheme among the 13 districts of Uttarakhand. In the same year, there were five beneficiaries of the interfaith marriage scheme, three of them from Haridwar.
In 2020-21, there were no beneficiaries of the interfaith marriage scheme at all. In fact, the hill districts of Pauri Garhwal, Rudraprayag, Chamoli, Uttarkashi and Almora recorded zero beneficiaries of the interfaith marriage scheme in the nearly six-year period of 2016-17 to the end of November 2021.
And, in 2021, according to the data provided in answer to the RTI query, only one couple applied for the interfaith marriage scheme. But though the application from this couple in Nainital district was registered successfully, financial assistance of Rs 50,000 to them has not yet been released.
(Till Nov 30, 2021)
Source: Directorate of Social Welfare, Uttarakhand
Clash of intentions
Despite the financial incentive of the interfaith marriage scheme, its number of beneficiaries is nowhere in proportion to the total number of interfaith marriages taking place in Uttarakhand under the Special Marriage Act.
This was proved by an RTI reply from the district magistrate’s office in Almora which showed that in the period between 2018-19 and December 31, 2021, the total number of interfaith marriages under the Special Marriage Act in the Almora district alone was five.
While officials of the state’s social welfare department refused to comment on why such few couples avail themselves of the interfaith marriage scheme, it is believed that the controversy surrounding the scheme since 2020 has scared people off.
The controversy began in November 2020 when a Tehri District Social Welfare Officer named Deepankar Ghildiyal issued a departmental press release that highlighted the interfaith marriage scheme and invited applications for it.
Given the existence of the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018, Ghildiyal’s press release instigated angry comments from even BJP politicians, who alleged that state government’s interfaith marriage scheme was intended to promote ‘love jihad’ in the Himalayan state.
One week later, the then chief minister of Uttarakhand, Trivendra Singh Rawat, ordered an enquiry into the matter and Ghildiyal was transferred to the Directorate of Social Welfare in Haldwani. The BJP-led state government also announced that it would withdraw the scheme.
However, the inter-faith marriage scheme still exists, at least on paper. This is perhaps because of the political turmoil in the hill state in recent times, with the BJP high command frequently replacing one chief minister with another, forcing the administration to change direction every time.