It was meant to be a touching moment in a fictional miniseries on Netflix, but a kiss between a young Hindu woman and a Muslim man has sparked controversy in India and become the latest flashpoint in the country’s identity politics.
The show, titled A Suitable Boy, originally produced by the BBC and adapted from the award-winning novel by Indian author Vikram Seth, is described as a coming of age story set in a newly independent and post-partition India.
The six-episode series, which was released on Netflix in India in October, includes a scene where female protagonist Lata kisses a young Muslim man at a Hindu temple.
It has angered members of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which control India’s federal government and several states.
One leader of the youth division has filed a complaint with police against the show’s creators, alleging the scene inside the temple hurt the sentiments of Hindus.
The complainant, Gaurav Tiwari, also accuses the film of promoting “love jihad”, which is a right-wing conspiracy theory that alleges Muslim men are conspiring to marry and forcibly convert Hindu women.
However, legal experts have already suggested the proceedings will not succeed.
“It’s utter nonsense,” Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, said.
“They have a notional idea of ‘love jihad’, which they are promoting to divide communities, and also they are trying to take away the autonomy and agency of women.
“This is a very patriarchal notion of protecting women.”
Some states want laws prohibiting ‘love jihad’
The complaint is an example of a broader issue in India, where the constitution stipulates the Hindu-majority country is a secular democracy.
Hindu nationalist groups, which have moved from the fringes to the mainstream in recent years, believe the country should be recognised as a Hindu nation.
Gilles Verniers, who is a political scientist at Ashoka University, said the complaint against the Netflix miniseries was just one episode in a very old, “large campaign of vilification” against Muslims, India’s largest minority.
“These organisations … have always viewed inter-religious unions as a threat to the integrity of the Hindu community,” Dr Verniers said.
“For a long time, they have peddled the false conspiracy theory that Muslims in India plot to expand their numbers through forced coercion.
“But it’s been made more effective and threatening by the simple fact that they are in power in a number of states and at the national level.”
In October, a jewellery company withdrew a social media advertisement that featured an interfaith couple holding a baby shower after it was bombarded with complaints and threats online.
Three BJP-ruled states – Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh – have also declared they will introduce laws prohibiting “love jihad”, with the latter now approving laws that will see “unlawful religious conversions” punishable with a jail term of up to 10 years.
But on Tuesday, a court in Uttar Pradesh declared: “Interference in a personal relationship would constitute a serious encroachment into the right to freedom of choice of the two individuals.”
The court case was brought about after a Muslim man was accused of forcibly converting his Hindu partner.
Dr Kumari said many families already disapproved of marrying outside one’s religion, and the “fictional theory” of “love jihad” was further alienating interfaith relationships.
“I have myself helped a couple of young people get married because such [interfaith] marriages are already problematic,” Dr Kumari said.
“There is a chance the boy and girl will be killed by family members in the name of honour, and also they have no place to live because people will not give them rented places.”
The Indian government has announced rules to further regulate content on international video-streaming platforms such as Netflix, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to establish a foothold in India and Asia.
Netflix has not responded to the latest controversy.