Battling hate with love in the age of Love Jihad
IN CONVERSATION WITH NILOUFER VENKATRAMAN, CO-FOUNDER AT INDIA LOVE PROJECT
31st December, 2020
Written by Anna Abraham
Artwork by Purvi Rajpuria
For me, as a product of an interfaith marriage, and also as someone in one, it was the personal becoming political.
As headlines of the disastrous ‘Love Jihad’ ordinance in Uttar Pradesh overwhelm our news feed, a project by three veteran journalists provides a glimmer of hope in the chaotic hatred. Priya Ramani, Samar Halarnkar and Niloufer Venkatraman launched India Love Project to show the realities of love – the intricacies of relationships and how faith is no barrier. The page on Instagram, @indialoveproject, documents stories of interfaith, inter-caste and same-sex relationshps in India.
Venkatraman, Consulting Editor at RoundGlass Sustain and Ramani and Halarnkar, who are on the editorial board at Article-14.com, began the project in late October 2020 after the Tanishq interfaith marriage advertisement controversy. Venkatraman speaks of the stories, the love and the journey.
How did the three of you start the project?
Priya and I are close friends and have known each other since we took a journalism course together at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai – around 25-30 years ago. Samar and Priya are married. We have been speaking about this for a year now. We were playing with the idea of launching a comprehensive website with long stories of interfaith marriages. It just never took off. However, when the Tanishq advertisement came out and an army of trolls (bhakts) forced the company to take it down, we realised we had to do something now. So we did what a millennial would, we started a less ambitious version of the project on Instagram – India Love Project.
Was there any planning or strategy?
None at all, it was spontaneous. We thought we would start with my own story since I, too, am in an interfaith marriage but then I decided to write about my parents instead. We had one more story, that of a friend, Natasha Badhwar, who is married to a Muslim. So that’s how we began. Two stories and no plan. But it really took off. We soon had a flood of DMs (direct messages) on Instagram. We put up a link to a Google form in our bio and we edit each story we receive ourselves. Sometimes, there’s a little back and forth to scope out better pictures from the couples. A few stories have been translated into English. We had never intended to be a page that posts every single day – it is a lot of work considering all three of us also have day jobs, but we receive so many heart-warming stories that they deserve a space of their own.
What did you want to say through India Love Project?
We wanted to change the narrative and say something positive about interfaith relationships because what we’re seeing around us is unacceptable and disheartening. Marriages outside the traditional norms of caste, gender and religion have been continuously demonised. For me, as a product of an interfaith marriage, and also as someone in one, it was the personal becoming political. Interfaith marriages are not a strange anomaly or some deviant behaviour. That is why we wanted to spread the word, that it is okay to not follow mainstream expectations of your choice of mate. It is okay to do the unexpected. Within the shackles of faith and caste, there are those marrying “conventionally” and there are millions of girls who are forced to marry someone they do not want to. No one bats an eye at this. Of course, we realise that the percentage of people in interfaith marriages is very small but the truth is we do exist and we are also the real India. This project is a representation of the diversity of India.
Has there been any backlash or internet-trolling the project has had to face?
One post did receive more trolls than others. It was the story of Seema Nahid and Nasir Iqbal. Seema converted to Islam for love, out of her choice, and the trolls did not take well to this. However, we barely have to intervene. Before we can say anything, the public has already debated the matter. Even so, the couples themselves are more than capable of defending themselves and their choices.
Do you think this documentation will have bigger impacts on the narratives in society?
To be honest, we never imagined it would ever gather this much support. It’s one of those things that you do from the heart. When we began we never thought about how it could change society. It was only about creating a positive, happy space. First and foremost, we wanted to put these stories out because they are real-life stories. Every one of them is a real couple with real love. The simple goal, as of now, is to put out as many stories of love and marriage outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity, religion and gender that we possibly can. Along the way if we can help people that will be an amazing bonus.
Have couples reached out asking for help – considering the taboo of such marriages in India?
A lot of couples have asked for help. We put out a call for professionals such as lawyers and mental health professionals and have also curated a list of those willing to give their time to couples in need pro bono. They help couples deal with issues pertaining to their family, society, legalities – whatever it may be. We have tied up with The Listener’s Collective for couples who need mental health assistance. We also connect people to Dhanak For Humanity that works specifically to ensure interfaith couples can live safely in all senses of the term.
Among all the tales of love that came flooding in, do you have a favourite?
This is almost like asking if I have a favourite child. I guess I have a soft spot for the vintage stories. I think they show that this is not just happening now, but that Indian history has its own romance with interfaith marriages. Of course, there’s the story of my own parents, but I also love one story that goes back 100 years! Another story I love is of Sudipa and Tridip K Mandal. Sudipa’s Brahmin parents were clear that she would not marry a Scheduled Caste boy. In order to elope, for a few days, he stood in a narrow lane behind her house as she threw her things down to him till her cupboard was practically empty. It’s a lovely story. I had goosebumps when I first read it.