Concern as Indian state says it will use special commission to track interfaith marriages

The government of India’s western Maharashtra state has set up a special committee that will keep track of married interfaith couples and their families, raising concerns pertaining to surveillance.

The government of India’s richest state, led by chief minister Eknath Shinde, on Thursday formed a 13-member coordinational committee headed by the state’s women and child development minister Mangal Prabhat Lodha to track and maintain a record of interfaith couples and their kin.

A helpline number will be made available for couples by the “interfaith marriage-family coordination committee”, according to a government order.

The committee will take stock of interfaith couples that have married legally or eloped and married at religious places, the order said. The panel will monitor district-level initiatives for women in such marriages who may be estranged from their families and provide assistance if necessary.

Counseling services will be made available to women and their families to resolve issues, the order directed.

Earlier, the administration had announced tracking of inter-caste marriage, but dropped the move after backlash from opposition parties.

The state government argued that the panel was necessitated in the wake of the gruesome murder of a Maharashtra woman allegedly by her live-in partner in national capital Delhi.

Aftab Ameen Poonawala was accused of strangling his 27-year-old girlfriend Shraddha Walker to death and chopping her into multiple pieces.

The woman is said to have been estranged from her family due to being in an interfaith relationship.

Last month, Maharashtra’s women and child development minister had asked the state women’s commission to set up a special squad to identify women who married without family support.

The prospect of mass surveillance of interfaith couples has been questioned as it takes place at a time when such couples are routinely targeted by right-wing outfits, who dub one type of an interfaith relationship to be “love jihad”.

“Love jihad” is a baseless conspiracy theory perpetuated by right-wing fringe groups that claim “vulnerable” women from the Hindu religion are romantically targeted and eventually converted to Islam by Muslim fundamentalists to increase the population of Muslims in the country and decrease the numbers of the former.

There is, however, no evidence to show the theory is accurate, with critics claiming its spread by the country’s right-wing ecosystem has further polarised an already communally charged atmosphere.

A spokesperson for the opposition Congress party, Sachin Sawant, in a tweet called the panel the state government’s “political agenda”. “This amounted to putting a strain on the state administration at the cost of the taxpayers money to further a political agenda,” he said.

He added that the state’s former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had announced the enactment of a law to protect inter-caste marriages, which had not yet been fulfilled.

“What happened to that committee? Will the present committee protect couples in interfaith and inter-caste marriages or spy on them and prevent them from getting married?” he asked.