Simran remembers exactly how she felt when the text flashed up on her phone: the short pang of terror that washed over her body, the sickness rising in her stomach. “Stop what you’re doing,” it said. “You need to think about your parents and the effects of your actions.”
The text was from her mother. At the time, Simran was 21 years old, a British Hindu whose parents were born in India.
She had been secretly dating a Muslim boy for three years.
She wasn’t sure if she’d been found out if that’s what her mother’s text was about so she immediately denied any wrongdoing and asked her mum to explain what was going on.
Internally, her mind was racing; she’d heard from friends of friends whose parents had disowned them for dating a Muslim.
If her mum had found out, her world as she knew it could be over in the next few minutes. She had no idea what would happen to her.
She tried ringing her mum over and over, but she didn’t pick up. Eventually, her phone buzzed with a text. She could only look through her fingers. “Ok,” it said. “I believe you. But be careful, you know what their boys are like.
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This month marks 70 years since the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, after more than two centuries of British colonial rule. The creation of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan caused one of the biggest mass-migrations in human history and led to a series of bloody wars, some of which continue to this day.
The reverberations of that moment are still felt in other ways, even by Brits of Indian and Pakistani heritage who have never visited Asia: in particular, when young Sikhs or Hindus fall in love with Muslims.
Of course, there are many ethno-religious groups that feel uncomfortable about their children “marrying out”, but the situation within some South Asian families is different.
There is a specific fear about Muslim men, and there are certain Hindu or Sikh parents who would feel comfortable about their child having a white partner, but not a Muslim one.
My family are Hindu Indian and I grew up being warned against dating Muslim men by my parents and their friends. One thing that would constantly crop up were stories of girls who had run away from their loving Indian families, into the arms of Muslim men, only to be trapped in the relationship, left miserable and abused by them in some way.
Growing up, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than betraying my parents like that all I wanted was to stay safe and never let them down.
Now I can see the prejudice in their words.
I don’t think they and many other Sikh or Hindu parents were deliberately being hateful, but they had listened to this fear-mongering narrative around Muslims their whole lives and allowed that to distort their views.
Katy Sian is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of York and has researched and written extensively on Sikh-Muslim relations. She tells me that there’s a similar narrative in many Sikh communities, where “there is a dominant idea around Muslims representing an ‘enemy’ within the Sikh community. So if Sikhs are to form relationships [with Muslims], it’s largely seen as being taboo.”
“Partition helped to crystallise the idea of the ‘Muslim enemy’,” she says. “Sikh discourse tends to focus on accounts of Sikh women being instructed by Sikh men to jump into wells to escape rape from Muslims or conversion to Islam. These women are remembered as martyrs and symbols of honour.
This unravels a more complex story around the politics of patriarchy, whereby conversion is seen as a fate worse than death. We go on to see elements of this being replayed in the current ‘forced conversions’ narrative.”
Sian’s research suggests that it was from the 1980s onwards that this forced conversions narrative which claims that Muslims go to great lengths to forcibly convert young Sikh and Hindu girls to Islam developed, the discourse absorbing previous and unresolved conflicts with Muslims.
“The idea of ‘love jihad’ circulates widely in the Hindu community,” she says.
“There are many overlaps with ‘love jihad’ and the Sikh forced conversions narrative. Both are inherently Islamophobic and patriarchal, as they are centred upon fixing the idea of innocent females at the hands of ‘dangerous’ Muslim men. In the context of Britain, the forced conversions narrative tells the story of Muslim ‘predators’ targeting ‘vulnerable’ Sikh and Hindu girls. The structure of this fear-mongering story is based on the idea that Muslim men are lurking on university campuses in disguise, ready to brainwash and manipulate Sikh females into Islam.
As the story goes, once a relationship is formed, Sikh females are drugged, impregnated and finally shipped off to Pakistan. The evidence supporting this story is limited, coming largely from far right Sikh, Hindu and British organisations such as the EDL.”
A love jihad image circulated on Hindu nationalist websites
Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism are global religions: tensions between followers can’t just be blamed entirely on the partition of India. But partition, and the violence that followed, has certainly allowed for prejudices and un-evidenced narratives of a “Muslim enemy” to form. Today, events in India continue to influence Britain’s diasporic South Asian communities and impact the relations between each religious group.
Narendra Modi, India’s president, is from the BJP, a right-wing Hindu-nationalist party. Modi came under fire for his role in a three-day massacre of Muslims in his constituency of Gujarat in 2002. He stoked tensions in the region, parading dead Hindus through the streets and announcing a “three day strike”, during which thousands of Muslims were raped and killed.
Modi has tried to distance himself from those events, but his party continues to oppose migration from Bangladesh into India except, that is, for Hindus who are deemed “refugees”, while Muslims remain “illegal”.
In this climate, many see inter-faith relationships as unthinkable.
Last year, in the Indian town of Mandya, 20 Hindus and a BJP member arrived at the house of a family whose daughter was marrying a Muslim man. Ashita and Shakeel’s parents had been friends for years and given their consent, but the wedding raised alarm bells among members of their community, who turned up and referenced the “love jihad”. The BJP member, Manjunath, said: “Just go to NIMHANS [National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences] and see for yourself. Almost 70 percent of the women who are admitted in NIMHANS for mental illness are victims of “love jihad”.
We want to avoid such a thing from happening.”
Following similar events in the mid-2000s, both the Kerala High Court and the Karnataka High Court commissioned investigations into “love jihad”. Neither reports found any evidence of such a thing, but India’s ruling party clearly paid no notice.
This political antipathy towards Muslims reflects back on diasporic communities in Britain. In 2015, some British Sikhs went so far as to align themselves against the Muslim community in Britain by supporting the English Defence League (EDL). The far-right political group also had a Sikh spokesman and a Sikh division, with 12,000 “likes” on Facebook.
Last year, the National Council of Hindu Temples cancelled an event to which they had invited former leader of the EDL, Tommy Robinson.
Reminiscent of the “love jihad” incident in India, in September of 2016 a Sikh temple in Leamington Spa was occupied by 55 masked armed men, who were thought to be protesting an interfaith wedding between a Sikh and a Muslim. After an eight-hour stand-off the men were arrested and disarmed, and a video from inside the temple was posted on the Facebook account of Sikh Youth Birmingham.
Then, of course, there’s cricket.
Unlike when other teams play, a India-Pakistan match is met with tension and the possibility of subsequent violence, as happened in Leicester last month when crowds began fighting and six police officers were injured.
“I never invested much effort into the relationship from the beginning, for fear of developing a strong emotional attachment that couldn’t be sustained.”
Even though Simran’s mum believed her lie, that she wasn’t dating a Muslim, the religious difference had been and remained a significant hurdle in her relationship.
“The stigma and the fear of my parents meant that I was in a secret three-year relationship with someone I was in love with,” she says. “At one point I had to change his name in my phone as I was so scared of my parents seeing something and realising what was happening. This went on for three years and was the same as a double life. Ultimately, we always knew it would never work out, as these things have a temporary time span on them, so we broke it off because our families would never accept it.”
It was a similar story for Jasmine, 21, a mixed-raced girl raised on both traditional Indian and British values.
“My act of teenage rebellion was having a Muslim boyfriend, of Pakistani descent,” she tells me. “My dad, who is Indian and also Christian, laid down two laws: no boyfriends until I’d finished my education, and no boyfriends who were Muslim ever. Muslim girl friends were more than welcome in our house, but Muslim boys were perceived as an entirely different breed: dangerous, with the potential to corrupt and convert young ‘nave’ girls like myself.
This idea of the forced conversion isn’t necessarily reciprocal. In Muslim communities, there may be less of a specific fear of Hindu and Sikh families.
Sian says: “My work has suggested this is predominantly one-sided. From my research, most Muslims are actually oblivious to the narrative and do not hold the same degree of animosity at all.”
But other Muslims I’ve spoken to did recognise an unease about dating Sikhs among from their own families.
Kalila is a 23-year-old Muslim girl who dated a Sikh boy. “Over time [the difference in ethnicity] began to weigh on us,” she says. “For me, I look back on the relationship and realise that it was the fear of informing my parents of the relationship, the disappointment that I thought would be imminent. In my mind, my informing them of my love and my place of happiness at that time would result in the biggest clash of culture ever seen.
There’s always been this invisible line, this divide between the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim children of the diaspora.”
Unfortunately, what little support there was for people in these relationships previously in the UK has been affected by cuts. Amrit Wilson is part of South Asia Solidarity Society, a political activist group campaigning on solidarity between the three religious groups in the UK.
“The thing to understand is that I’ve worked alongside women’s centres and I’ve seen the closures of South Asian Women centres where girls could have gone if their parents were telling them to end their relationships, because of cuts,” she says.
“Now the thing I’d suggest to anyone in this position is to find a BME women’s centre in their local area and find support there. The real issue now is supporting new safe spaces forming, which is exactly what groups like Sisters Uncut do.
Also, fighting against Islamophobia.”
One safe space online is thanks to Dilip Amin, the creator of “Interfaith Shaadi” (interfaith wedding), a forum dedicated to all kinds of interfaith relationships. People can post their queries and he offers rational, non-judgmental advice. While the website isn’t strictly limited to South Asians, there are numerous posts from young Indian and Pakistani individuals looking for answers and reassurance.
Amin created the blog in 2009 after moving to the US from Gujarat, India and observing the pressures of dating someone with a contrasting religion.
“This website is a shrine for me,” he explains. “I have already helped 1,200 youths directly and thousands [of] others indirectly and that is what keeps me going.”
While Amin’s site is an incredible venture and evidently a massive source of comfort for lots of couples, it’s still just a tiny WordPress blog.
The need for more widely-available advice is considerable, especially when seeking help from parents or relatives your traditional support network is often so difficult.
“My seven-month long relationship didn’t work out for a number of reasons mainly due to immaturity and a lack of common interest,” says Jasmine. “However, I also felt burdened by the paranoia of being caught in public together, hated lying to my parents about my whereabouts and was well aware that the relationship had no long-term potential due to my dad’s prejudice. I never invested much effort into the relationship from the beginning, for fear of developing a strong emotional attachment that couldn’t be sustained. Breaking up was a relief, as I was able to resume my sense of freedom.”
It may be 70 years since partition, but the event created a deep-set trauma between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims that is trickling down to young British Asians today. Pakistan and India will celebrate their respective independence days, but for some, their futures are still hindered by history.
Some names have been changed.