Love has been the cause of 38,585 murders and culpable homicides in India between 2001 and 2015, according to figures published by the Times of India. It is also said to have been responsible for an additional 79,189 suicides, while there have been 260,000 cases of kidnapping motivated by marriage. These figures dwarf the 20,000 victims – including civilians and security forces – of terror-related incidents during the same period, and highlight India’s socio-political problems.
While one key reason behind love-motivated deaths is that men who have been jilted sometimes seek vengeful retaliation, the most prevalent cause is suicide, where those who feel unrequited love towards someone end their own lives. Perhaps the most disconcerting motive, however, is so-called ‘honour killing’, where people are murdered by friends, family, the authorities – or all of the above. The victims in these cases are star-crossed lovers, whose relationships happen to disrupt caste and class hierarchies, provoking social outrage.
Widening social divisions
Soon after India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, a campaign was launched against Love Jihad, a conspiracy theory whereby Muslim men allegedly target Hindu women for conversion to Islam under false pretenses of love.
By reinforcing India’s caste structure with policies like the fight against Love Jihad, the government is widening the gaps between the country’s societal groups – something is likely to cause the number of love-related deaths to rise in the coming years. The caste system has been in place for thousands of years in India, and is often used as a way to explain the country’s sociopolitical landscape. Experts believe that by incorporating caste and religious distinctions into government policy, the BJP has politicised societal divisions to capitalise on Indians’ social insecurities and appeal to the country’s Hindu majority.
The BJP’s success represents India’s version of the conservative wave that compelled America to elect Trump and Britain to vote to leave the European Union. As Dr. Navtej Purewal, Deputy Director of the South Asia Institute at SOAS, University of London, explains, ‘The turn of the Indian government to the far right through the election of the BJP rests on several pillars of fear: uncertainties about modernity, ruptures of gender, caste and class relations and majoritarian (masculinist) rule.’
While India struggles to reconcile global superpower status with its proud cultural heritage, many Indians worry that the traditional family unit and caste structure will be broken down by what is perceived to be the juggernaut of globalisation. The government’s response appears to be a dubious juggling act, showcasing practical economic liberalism alongside authoritarian social conservatism and moral policing.
Vigilante moral policing
The effect, Dr. Purewal clarifies, is that India is now careening towards deeper religious division, while the pursuit of social equality disappears from the political agenda, even being reversed. While suicide represents the tragic internalisation of caste politics, its fascist externalisation can be seen on the streets of India. ‘anti-Romeo squads’ – vigilante groups that operate outside the law – patrol the streets, chase down couples that have eloped and publicly shame consenting adults in the name of protecting women from harassment.
The extremes of vigilante justice in India is evident in cases where people suspected of eating beef or killing cows –considered sacred in Hinduism – have been lynched. India’s extra-judicial, citizen-enforced moral policing bares an alarming resemblance to Hitler’s sturmabteilung (SA) in pre-Nazi Germany. The SA was a militant group that enforced the future Führer’s social ideals in the years before the Nazi party came to power, but was later cast aside after being deemed too radical, even for Hitler.
Acid attacks on the rise
Caste divisions and love can both be linked to the rising trend of acid attacks on the streets of India. Causing excruciating pain and visible physical scarring, this act of violence intended to socially ostracise victims by inflicting severe facial disfigurement in addition to the mental trauma which accompanies any physical attack.
The Acid Survivors Foundation India (ASFI) reports almost a 150% increase in instances of acid violence between 2012 and 2015, with cases rising steadily from 106 to 249. Figures vary depending on the source, but the bottom line is clear: acid attacks are on the rise and, in the vast majority of cases, the victims are women.
Is there hope for the future?
Despite the seemingly dire state of affairs, there is a resistance movement that has been developing in opposition to the government-instigated moral policing. Five courageous acid attack survivors have opened the Sheroes’ Hangout cafe in Agra, Uttar Pradesh in defiance of their attackers, collaborating with the Stop Acid Attacks campaign and the Chhanv Foundation. Students, women and male sympathisers are uniting behind campaigns like the nationwide protests such as ‘Kiss of Love‘ in Kochi, ‘Break the Cage’, in Delhi and ‘Blank Noise’ in Bangalore. By assembling in the streets in the middle of the night or symbolically kissing in broad daylight, individuals taking part seek to fight back against the socially conservative attitudes that threaten to turn back the clock for female empowerment and social equality in India.
However, if the current social policy in India continues, it is likely that the number of love-related deaths will increase even further over the coming years as the government struggles to balance economic modernisation with the country’s deep-rooted cultures and traditions.