BANGALORE - Five Indian states have proposed new laws on forced religious conversions around marriage, fuelling the 'love jihad' conspiracy theory which claims that Muslim men are carrying out an organised campaign to convert women to Islam.
On Oct 31, Mr Yogi Adityanath, the Hindu cleric who is chief minister of India's most populous state, thundered in an election rally in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh: "The government is taking a decision to stop love jihad… I warn those who conceal their identities and disrespect our sisters. If you don't mend your ways, your funerals will begin soon."
Mr Adityanath has railed against "love jihad" for years, claiming that the campaign is an international conspiracy to make Muslims more populous in India.
On Nov 1, the chief minister of Haryana, another northern state, told journalists that his government was considering similar measures.
Two days later, the leader of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh said: "There will be no jihad in the name of love, whoever does such an act will be set right." The same day, the tourism minister of Karnataka tweeted that the southern state would enact "a law banning religious conversions for the sake of marriage."
All these state governments are led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. In Assam, the BJP promised to mount a "strict fight against love jihad".
The recent debate follows the murder of a 20-year-old Hindu woman in Haryana in late October. CCTV footage appeared to show a man shooting Ms Nikita Tomar in broad daylight as she resisted abduction. The police have arrested the alleged shooter: a Muslim man who Ms Tomar's family said had been stalking her and attempted to kidnap her earlier.
The Haryana government claimed the incident was a case of "love jihad".
Earlier, social media trolling by Hindu groups had forced a jewellery brand to withdraw its advertisement featuring a happy inter-religious family.
The term "love jihad" was first used around 2009 by some Hindu and Christian groups in the southern states of Karnataka and Kerala to refer to a shadowy conspiracy by Muslim men to deceive or coerce women into converting to Islam. It has since led to vigilantes attacking or harassing inter-faith couples, especially when the man is a Muslim.
Yet, several official investigations have found no evidence of the existence of "love jihad".
In 2009, a probe by the Karnataka Criminal Investigation Department into hundreds of inter-religious marriages concluded: "There is no organised attempt by any group of individuals to entice girls/women belonging to Hindu or Christian religions to marry Muslim boys with the aim of converting them to Islam."
In 2012, the Kerala police said there was no evidence of the existence of "love jihad" in that state. In 2014, the Uttar Pradesh police said there was no evidence of conversion in five of six 'love jihad' cases it had investigated. The state police chief had then told Reuters: "In most cases we found that a Hindu girl and Muslim boy were in love and had married against their parents' will."
In 2018, India's Supreme Court restored a marriage involving a Hindu woman from Kerala who had converted to Islam. Ms Hadiya Jahan's family claimed that she was a victim of "love jihad", despite her testimony that she had converted willingly.
A Supreme-Court ordered probe by the National Investigation Agency into 11 cases of inter-faith marriages in Kerala subsequently found no evidence of forced conversion.
This February, the BJP-led central government said in Parliament that no agencies had reported any case of "love jihad" in India.
But many state governments continue to investigate inter-faith marriages. In Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, the police recently set up a team to look into reports of "love jihad". Last month, the head of India's National Commission for Women said that she had met the governor of Maharashtra to discuss "rise in love jihad cases".
There is no official data on the number of inter-faith marriages in India, but they are not very common. The National Family Health Survey 2016 found that only 2.6 per cent of marriages were between people of different religions (this did not include marriages where one spouse changed their religion).
Interfaith couples can get married under a Special Marriage Act without changing their religion. However, the law requires the registrar to publicly post a notice about the intended marriage 30 days before the wedding date. This sometimes leads to interference by reluctant families or right-wing groups that oppose inter-faith marriages.