It has been a couple of weeks since we were shocked by the phrase “forced miscarriage”. The family of Muskan and Rashid, the first interfaith couple held under Uttar Pradesh’s newly-drafted Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance—an irony in itself, in a democracy whose constitution guarantees citizens the right to practise the religion of their choice—told media that the pregnant Muskan nee Pinki had been given abortifacients deliberately by hospital authorities, with the intention that she miscarry the couple’s first child.
Dubbed the “love jihad law” with pride by some and disgust by others, it states, “The Ordinance prohibits conversion of religion through: (i) force, misrepresentation, undue influence, and allurement, or (ii) fraud, or (iii) marriage. It also prohibits a person from abetting, convincing, and conspiring to such conversions. However, a person reconverting to his/her immediate previous religion is allowed.”
It also requires individuals who want to convert and the person performing the conversion ceremony to “submit an advance declaration of the proposed religious conversion to the District Magistrate”, with a notice of 60 days by the former and a month by the latter.
The ordinance was promulgated on November 27, 2020. But can it be applied retrospectively to a woman who converted more than five months earlier to marry the man of her choice?
On December 5, two consenting adults along with the husband’s family were stopped by members of the Bajrang Dal on their way back from the district court to register their marriage. A strange coincidence, indeed. Videos shot and released by the men who stopped them and demanded the woman’s name showed her stating clearly that she had not been forced to convert, and had chosen her husband and religion of her own accord.
Media reports later said that the couple had had a nikah ceremony several months earlier, unknown even to relatives. They were accepted by Rashid’s family but seem to have faced some hostility from Muskan’s. Allegedly following phone threats, Muskan had written to the police asking for protection in late July.
What unfolded in early December seems fairly clear. The couple was stopped on December 5 and forced to the police station. The husband and his brother were taken into police custody, where they would remain for two weeks before being released for “lack of evidence” of wrongdoing. Muskan was escorted in the middle of the night to Nari Niketan, a “shelter home” which she told reporters functioned like a prison. She said she had been forced to do labour, although she was in a delicate condition—the first trimester of her pregnancy—which was known to both the Bajrang Dal activists who dragged her to the police station and to the administration of Nari Niketan.
Not long after, Muskan complained of severe abdominal pains. She was taken to the local women’s hospital for check-ups on December 7 and 10, and admitted on the night of December 11. She told media she was given an injection the next day although her blood pressure was found to be normal, and that on December 13 and 14, she was given two injections a day and some tablets.
There are conflicting reports about what actually happened after. The hospital to which she was admitted maintains that she was seven weeks pregnant when she left, and that there was no sign of a miscarriage. Scans taken subsequently do show scarring consistent with the consumption of abortifacients. The family alleges a uterine infection has set in because of lack of post-procedural care by the hospital, and this could preclude further pregnancies. There is also the horrific issue of the state possibly having forced an unwanted abortion on an uninformed woman.
While it is possible that Muskan miscarried without unsolicited medical intervention, it is evident she was under severe stress—not ideal for a woman in the first weeks of her first pregnancy.
It has been hardly two years since Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was read down to annul its application to sex between consenting human adults, irrespective of their genders. And now we are faced with a law that requires not just justification for religious conversion, but dictates that marriage cannot be a reason for conversion, thus infantilising consenting adults yet again.
This is a disingenuous workaround that requires interfaith couples to register their marriages under the Special Marriage Act, which mandates that the notice of an impending marriage be put up for a month during which time anyone may raise objections. In a region whose bigots boast of having their own “intelligence network”, such a notice could have dire consequences for the couple.
With so many contrasting laws in place, lending themselves to various interpretations, it appears that love in India is subject to the whims of the powers that be.
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com