by Pratik Mahajan
In 2009, a campaign against “Love Jihad” emerged in the state of Kerala, proclaiming that Hindu women needed to be protected from forced conversion by Muslim men (Strohl et.al, 2019, p. 27). The campaign involved Hindu-Nationalist groups Shri Ram Sena distributing warnings on college campuses, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) setting up an anti-Love Jihad helpline. Almost a decade since its emergence, the conspiracy theory has been successful in changing law, with the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Haryana passing anti-Love Jihad laws in 2020.
The puzzle this paper seeks to answer is why, despite emerging in 2009 and affecting law in 2020 in the aforementioned states, the conspiracy reached its peak engagement in India in September 2014 (Google Trends, 2022). Applying theories by Nattrass (2013), van Prooijen et.al. (2018), and Radnitz (2015), this paper tests three hypotheses to answer the puzzle. By a qualitative analysis of the sequence and content of news media stories about Love Jihad in August- September 2014, the paper finds support for the hypotheses that conspiracy theories are most likely to gain prominence when propagated by individual political agents, especially when the theory contains elements of threat by an outsider group whose influence must be counteracted through mobilization. Mobilization is key for conspiracy theorists, because the chief aim of a conspiracy theorist is to call on people to act in support of or against the content of the conspiracy. Furthermore, the paper suggests that the Radnitz’s hypothesis can be modified to shift its focus from political parties to individual leaders, who can independently use conspiracy narratives to improve their own political profile - this in reference to the prominent role of Yogi Adityanath, who was in 2014 a Member of Parliament belonging to the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, in peddling the Love Jihad conspiracy theory.
1. Is Love Jihad a Conspiracy Theory?
Before moving to hypothesis building, it is important to clarify whether Love Jihad qualifies as a conspiracy theory under the frameworks of the theories this paper draws on.
Van Prooijen et. al. understand conspiracy theories to entail the identification of: a) a regular pattern of behaviour or a series events; b) an organized coalition of elites behind the pattern; and c) an intention to deceive or harm on the part of the coalition (van Prooijen et.al., 2018, p. 770). The particular instances of the conspiracy theory about the origin of AIDS, and the conspiracy following the 2010 riots of Kyrgyzstan studied by Nattrass and Radnitz, respectively, meet these properties of conspiracy theory.
In the case of Love Jihad, Hindu-Nationalist groups and their leaders allege that there exists a ‘globally coordinated’ plot of Islamic forces to convert Hindu women to Islam by their marriage to Muslim men, with the ultimate aim of turning India into an Islamic state (Gupta, 2009, p. 13). Groups such as the VHP and Shri Ram Sena have taken up particular cases of conflict that surround interfaith marriage which occur without the approval of parents, and allege that Islamic clerics train young boys to impersonate Hindus, with the goal of trapping Hindu women into relationships (p. 14). Focusing on instances of interfaith marriages allows the groups to point to a pattern of behaviour in society, while alleging a global plot identifies a perceived coalition of elites behind that behaviour. Furthermore, the alleged claim is that this plot exists to convert India into an Islamic state with Sharia law, where Hindu traditions would come under threat. Hence, the claims of Love Jihad qualify as a conspiracy theory for the purpose of this paper.
2. Explaining the dependent variable: Spread of the Conspiracy in 2014
The puzzle this paper aims to answer is why there was a spike in search count of the term “Love Jihad” on Google, as per Google Trends data. Google Trends provides an unfiltered sample of search requests made on the Google search engine for specific terms. While a spike in search requests does not necessarily indicate that the topic is popular at the time, it does indicate that there is higher than usual interest in the topic for an unspecified reason.
The graph below shows the Google Trends timeline for Love Jihad in India. Of the 4 noticeable spikes, 3 are tied to specific events. The first spike in October 2009 happened at the time when an anti-Love Jihad campaign emerged in Kerala in response to a specific court case (Strohl et.al, 2019, p. 28). The third spike in 2017 happened at the time of the Hadiya case heard in the Supreme Court, where the decision of a lower court to annul an interfaith marriage on the claims of Love Jihad was overturned. The fourth spike in November 2020 happened at the time of the Uttar Pradesh government passing an anti-conversion Love Jihad law.
However, the fourth spike, around August to September 2014, does not parallel any legal or policy incident related to Love jihad. Two important observations may thus be made from the Google Trends timeline on Love Jihad in India. First, the search timeline shows a pattern of sensitivity to actual events, making the Google Trends timeline an important indicator of the dependent variable of popular interest in the Love Jihad conspiracy theory. Second, the second spike, which was also the biggest of the four, observed in August-September 2014 must be explained in relation to events that may have spurred an interest in the conspiracy theory.
3. Theoretical Framework and Hypotheses
To answer the question of why the Love Jihad conspiracy theory became most salient in September 2014, this paper tests three hypotheses by drawing on the work of van Prooijen et. al., Nattrass, and Radnitz.
Nattrass’ analysis of conspiracy theories brings to light the role that individual elite agents play in drawing on ideas across social and cultural contexts to give legitimacy to, reshape, and propagate narratives of conspiracy theories. Comparing the spread of the conspiracy theories around the origins of the AIDS epidemic in the US and South Africa, Nattrass finds particular religious and political leaders respectively responsible for shaping and influencing the narrative of the AIDS conspiracies (Nattrass. 2013, p. 124). Because of their position as political and cultural agents, the conspiracy theory attracts attention of the public in ways that allow for a more concrete narrative to be propagated. From Nattrass’ analysis, the first hypothesis this paper will seek to evaluate is the following:
H1: Specific political and cultural leaders in positions of influence shaped and made the narrative of Love Jihad salient in 2014.
The first hypothesis looks at the ways in which conspiracy theories are propagated through a top-down mechanism. Moreover, what made the Love Jihad conspiracy theory an issue that attracted widespread attention needs an analysis of how the conspiracy theory is constructed for the masses. Van Prooijen et. al. discuss the adaptive-conspiracy theory model in their article. In understanding why conspiracy theories emerge and are propagated, the article focuses on the detection of two main mechanisms - threats and coalitions. When humans detect threats, conspiracy theories provide a way to make sense of and place the root of the threat on a particular source. Furthermore, when such threats are perceived to be coming from an “outgroup,” conspiracy theories take on the framework of deliberate plots by hostile coalitions, giving intentionality to the threat posed by the other. A consequence of the adaptive-conspiracy model is that if conspiracy theories are understood to be products of humans detecting threats and the hostile coalitions behind them, they are likely to have at least two distinct reactions: avoidance or approach (p. 774). Avoidance-oriented reactions entail developing a fear of the hostile coalition and avoiding confrontation with the other. Approach-oriented reactions entail direct confrontation, by way of minimizing or even eliminating the threat entirely. When a group has the means and networks to organize, van Prooijen et. al. predict a confrontational approach against the outsider group. From the adaptive-conspiracy theory model, the second hypothesis to be tested for the case of Love-Jihad is as follows:
H2: Cases of interfaith marriages between Hindus and Muslims without the consent of the families were perceived as a threat by Hindus, with the Love-Jihad conspiracy theory being a mechanism to mobilize action against and counteract the threat.
For answering this paper’s puzzle, the first hypothesis points in the direction of remarks and initiatives taken by prominent agents to propagate the theory, while the second hypothesis explains the conspiracy’s spread as a counteraction strategy in response to perceived threats of interfaith marriages. However, what remains to be explained are the motivations and particular circumstances of 2014 which may have prompted leaders to make the Love Jihad conspiracy theory more salient. For this, the paper draws on Radnitz’s claim that in times of uncertainty or political opportunity, conspiracy theories provide a focal point for elite-group consolidation in the absence of other grounds for support. Radnitz takes up the conspiracy theory that spread in the aftermath of ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, where an official government panel declared the Uzbek minority and the former President as being responsible for plotting the riots without concrete evidence (Radnitz, 2015, p. 475). Radnitz claims that the conspiracy theory allowed the new governing elites to consolidate and establish their legitimacy and support amongst the Kyrgyz people. Radnitz relies on a comparative analysis of a similar riot in 1990, which did not lead to a conspiracy theory emerging. Radnitz claims that the circumstances at the time allowed the ruling elite to legitimize their rule on other factors, such as being a founding group governing Kyrgyzstan. Such socio-political factors did not exist in 2010, which made it necessary for elites to spread a conspiracy theory to establish support (Radnitz, 2015, o. 479).
Radnitz’s analysis can be extrapolated to claim that when elites detect either a threat against their own rule and cohesiveness or an opportunity to come into power, they allege the presence of a hostile coalition of outsider conspirators in order to mobilize electoral support in their favour. Applying this insight, the third hypothesis to be tested is the following:
H3: Electoral incentives existed in 2014 for Hindu-Nationalist political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party to peddle the Love Jihad conspiracy theory in order to consolidate support amongst Hindus.
To test the hypotheses, this paper relies on a qualitative analysis of news stories that were run by prominent Hindi and English TV news channels between August and October of 2014, as well as news articles containing statements by political leaders and their party’s platforms. The video clips of these TV news stories were taken from the news channels’ YouTube archive. For the news stories in Hindi, the findings and analysis contain English translations of the statements made in the videos. An advantage of these primary sources is that their concentration in a particular time frame assists the identification of factors that led to the Love Jihad conspiracy theory becoming popular in 2014. However, while this method helps establish why the conspiracy theory became prominent in 2014, a lack of survey data means that the paper cannot establish if its increase in prominence in 2014 also meant an increase in people’s belief in the conspiracy theory. While the news stories make the perceived threat of Love Jihad more prominent, the ways by which Hindu-Nationalist groups consolidate the fear and mobilize counteraction against it require field studies. Due to this limitation, the paper’s scope is focused on asking how and why the Love Jihad conspiracy theory became a greater topic of public discussion in 2014, without answering whether the belief in the conspiracy theory also increased after 2014. Insofar as this remains the goal of the paper, an analysis of news stories provides suitable evidence to test the three hypotheses.
5. Findings and Discussion
On August 27, 2014, India TV channel reported a leaked video of comments made by BJP Member of Parliament Yogi Adityanath in 2008. In the video shown by India TV, Adityanath is caught declaring that “For every Hindu girl that [the Muslims] convert, we will convert a 100 Muslim women!” (translation). In the same story, Adityanath is invited to clarify his comments. While claiming ignorance of his comments from a few years ago, Adityanath doubles down on his rhetoric against conversion of Hindus to Muslims by claiming that serious investigations need to take place on the issue of forced religious conversions of Hindus (India TV, 2014). Within the span of the same week, Zee News, Aaj Tak, and India TV ran news stories and debates on the topic of “Love Jihad,” claiming that Hindu girls were being targeted by Muslim men, who changed their names and posed as Hindu, marrying them and then forcing their conversion to Islam. Yogi Adityanath was reinvited by India TV on August 31 for a town hall style interview, where he validated the claims that cases of interfaith marriages were not based on love but on deception, and this provided enough evidence for the existence of an “Islamic conspiracy against India.” He further claimed that Islamic institutions provide training and financial packages to Muslim men to convert Hindu women. Notably, Adityanath gave validity to the claim that Muslim men changed their names, were given new clothes and motorcycles, and were taught mannerisms to pose as Hindu, alleging that the issue of Love Jihad is not based on whether interfaith marriages should be allowed, but whether such deceptive and coordinated campaigns that result in forced conversions should continue (India TV, 2014).
5.1 Implications for Hypothesis 1
The emergence of a series of news stories discussing Love Jihad after Adityanath’s comments give credence to Nattrass’ claim that individual political agents play a critical role in shaping and propagating conspiracy theories. Being a sitting Member of Parliament, as well as a Hindu priest and a prominent leader of the Hindu far-right, Adityanath’s endorsement of the Love Jihad conspiracy theory allowed it to move from a theory peddled by far-right groups on the ground to a topic of discussion given a platform by the mainstream media. Furthermore, the particular ways in which Adityanath refers to particular cases of deceptive interfaith marriages as evidence for a Jihadist plan against India also gives credence to Nattrass’ theory that political agents borrow ideas across contexts. The use of the term Jihad in India particularly attains a militant connotation after the attacks of 2008 by Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai (Acharya et. al., 2010, p. 1) . To allege that the conversion campaigns of Hindu women are a part of a Love Jihad plot further allows the conspiracy theory to be placed in the context of a wider alleged threat of perceived attacks on India and Hinduism by “Islamic” agents.
Thus, the first hypothesis based on Nattrass’ suggestion, that one should look at the role of particular political agents in the reshaping and spread of a conspiracy theory, is confirmed in the case of the September 2014 peaking of the Love Jihad conspiracy theory. BJP MP Adityanath became the most prominent leader at the national level to endorse the Love Jihad conspiracy theory, and his political standing and controversial comments meant that mainstream news media channels gave a platform to discuss the conspiracy.
5.2 Implications for Hypothesis 2
While an endorsement by a sitting BJP MP made the Love Jihad narrative salient, the appeal of the conspiracy theory amongst audiences itself is rooted in choices made by media channels to present particular and unverified cases of forced conversions as evidence for a Love Jihad plot. A closer analysis of the news stories run by Zee News, Aaj Tak, and India TV indicates that deliberate choices were made to present the Love Jihad narrative as an issue of importance to the Hindu community.
The news stories present the issue of Love Jihad as new and pressing, claiming that cases of interfaith marriages through deception and coercion had gone up. In its story on August 27, Zee News claimed to have conducted an “independent investigation” on Love Jihad in the state of Uttar Pradesh (the home state of BJP MP Adityanath), and repeats the point that in an unstated number of cases Hindu girls had been approached by Muslim men posing as Hindu, and then deceived into marriage. In its town hall on August 30, Zee News then invited a Hindu Priest (Mahant) who claimed madrasas, or Muslim schools, taught nothing other than the “techniques of deception” which the Muslim boys incorporate to carry out Love Jihad with the promise of rewards. When asked for proof to back up his claims, the priest replies that merely the cases of “victims of interfaith marriages” were evidence enough to suggest that an Islamic conversion plot existed. Aaj Tak channel’s piece on September 3 further claimed that cases of Love Jihad had risen across North India. The piece focused on the narrative that in cases where interfaith marriage occurred, Muslim men had deliberately introduced themselves with a Hindu name to trap Hindu women. It further claimed that after being victim to a Love Jihad marriage, the Hindu woman lived a life of enslavement and torture. Finally, on October 14, Times Now ran a debate on Love Jihad, wherein the host Arnab Goswami pushed the narrative that the existence of an organized coalition of Love Jihads cannot be dismissed just because evidence of a connection is not found in one instance of forced interfaith marriage.
From these news stories, three things can be stated in support of the paper’s second hypothesis. First, the stories are engaged in presenting a pattern of behaviour of Muslim men that assigns an intentionality to their acts. The repetition of the claim that Muslim men hide their true identity by changing their names is one such example, which insinuates that this observation is evidence that there are links between such cases of deception. Second, while providing no evidence, the stories allow guest speakers to tie this pattern of behaviour to Islamic institutions. This ambiguity leaves room for the conspiracy that Islamic institutions train and fund Muslim men for Love Jihad to be circulated without being debunked. Third, repeated claims of Hindu girls being subjects of deception and violence in interfaith marriages attempts to make prominent the perceived threat to Hindus at large by Love Jihad. Thus, the evidence from the content of these stories on Love Jihad confirms the second hypothesis that the conspiracy theory was picked up and given a platform in mainstream TV news media in order to highlight the perceived threat to Hindus of an alleged coalition of Islamic Institutions.
5.3: Implications for Hypothesis 3
The question still remains around the timing of the conspiracy’s spread. While it can merely be attributed to the chance leak of Adityanath’s comments that sparked the series of news stories on Love Jihad, Radnitz’s theory suggests that electoral incentives and opportunities make it more likely for political elites to peddle conspiracy theories in the absence of other points of mobilization.
The BJP was coming off of a federal election victory in May 2014. However, the state government in Uttar Pradesh remained in control of the Samajwadi Party, an ideological opponent of the BJP. The by-elections for the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly in September 2014 provided an opportunity for the BJP to challenge the hold of the Samajwadi Party in the state (India Today, 2014). The timing of the Love Jihad conspiracy theory could be attributed to the BJP’s attempt at consolidating support amongst Hindus for the elections in September 2014. However, the BJP did not include the topic of Love Jihad in its manifesto, and prominent federal leaders such as Home Minister Rajnath Singh claimed ignorance and distanced themselves from the conspiracy theory (The Times of India, 2014). The lack of coordination and initiative by the BJP to peddle the Love Jihad theory suggests that while the circumstances existed for the conspiracy to be adopted, no clear evidence exists for that the party itself was leading the effort that led to the conspiracy theory’s rise in 2014. Thus, as it stands, the third hypothesis can be rejected.
However, suggesting the prominent role of Yogi Adityanath in pushing the Love Jihad narrative points to a synthesis of Nattrass and Radnitz’s claims. While elites may use conspiracy theories to coordinate elite support, individual agents may also use such conspiracy theories to improve their own political prospects. I suggest here that the level of analysis be moved from political parties to individual political leaders in understanding why leaders engage in conspiracy theory propagation. While certain issues may not be used by political parties to turn into conspiracy theories for electoral gains, they may be taken up by individual actors to rise through the ranks of the political party. In the case of Adityanath, his endorsement of the conspiracy theory in 2014 came at a time when the BJP had won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats, while the state government still remained in the hands of an opposition party. With elections for the state legislative assembly to be held in 2017, and with the BJP riding on a strong wave of support in the federal elections, an opening emerged for the position of the BJP leadership in Uttar Pradesh. The campaign during the by elections of 2014 provided an opportunity for Adityanath to place himself in the forefront of discussion, which the Love Jihad conspiracy theory allowed. While acting independently of the BJP high-command in the case of peddling the Love Jihad theory in 2014, Adityanath rose to power as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, and successfully incorporated the conspiracy into BJP’s 2022 manifesto for the state assembly elections (Pathak, 2022). The by-elections in Uttar Pradesh shifted the limelight from the national politics to the state, providing an opportunity for a local leader to emerge. Therefore, the Love Jihad conspiracy provided a focal point for Adityanath to raise his personal profile as a Hindu-nationalist leader of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, setting up his trajectory as the BJP leader in the state.
6. Discussion and Conclusion
In examining the causes behind the rise of the Love Jihad conspiracy theory in 2014, this paper tested three hypotheses. Drawing from Nattrass, the first hypothesis pointed at the role of political agents in propagating conspiracies. Through a timeline analysis of news media stories between August 27 and September 3, the paper finds that the role of BJP MP Yogi Adityanath was consequential in bringing the Love Jihad narrative into national mainstream media. The attributes of pattern and coalition identification and threat perception discussed by van Prooijen et. al. that characterize most conspiracy theories were also found to be present in the news stories, giving evidence to support the hypothesis that the Love Jihad conspiracy theory had the right attributes for mobilization of Hindus. Finally, Radnitz’s claim that conspiracy theories will be used by elites to consolidate support for within the elite group as well as for electoral gains was changed to claim that the conspiracy theory provided an individual actor, Yogi Adityanath, to rise to prominence as a Hindu-nationalist political leader and consolidate his presence within the BJP, becoming the Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, three years after the spread of the conspiracy theory.
In conclusion, while the first two hypotheses are supported by a qualitative analysis of news stories in 2014, it was suggested that the third hypothesis be adjusted to focus on individual political actors instead of elite groups or a political party at large. However, the paper’s application of theoretical lenses to the Love Jihad conspiracy can be strengthened by comparing the conspiracies’ rise post-Adityanath’s leaked comments with a close-to-counterfactual case, to provide stronger evidence for the factors discussed behind the conspiracy’s rise in 2014.
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References for Youtube clips of news stories.
September 3, 2014. Cases of Love Jihad on the rise https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Avz4o2kvFQ&t=568s
August 27, 2014. Controversial remarks of Yogi Adityanath leaked.
August 31, 2014. Yogi Adityanath Town Hall:
October 14, 2014. Debate on Love Jihad.
August 27, 2014. Love Jihad Exclusive Survey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDQIDP8-APE
August 30, 2014. Special Townhall on Love Jihad