We bring you the love story of all love stories from India where an obstacle–the backlack against inter-faith and inter-racial marriage gave birth to an activism on Instagram chronicling the love story of inter-faith couples who are breaking barriers.
In a Tanishq advertisement broadcast last October, a Muslim woman organizes a traditional Hindu-style baby shower for her Hindu daughter-in-law. Misty-eyed, the pregnant woman says something along the lines of: “But..this isn’t a part of your family’s custom, is it?” To which her mother-in-law responds “Isn’t it customary to keep daughters happy everywhere?”
To see inter-religious relationships among Bollywood stars is one thing, but to see them portrayed positively on mainstream television is entirely another. It was star-crossed timing. The ad had aired on the heels of India’s notorious anti-interfaith marriage legislation in Uttar Pradesh (dubbed the ‘Love Jihad’ laws) which jailed 49 people in the first month alone. While many lauded the progressive, secular values reflected in the storyline, rampant Islamophobia ensured a backlash so severe that the jewellery brand was forced to take down the ad.
Even in an increasingly hostile sociopolitical climate, thousands of inter-faith unions continue to be solemnized under the Special Marriages Act every year and while they by no means make up the “norm”, such partnerships are only growing in number. Some of these marriages take place without family or community support, and sometimes under the threat of honor killing. Marriages crossing caste and religious boundaries are tremendous acts of courage, sacrifice and most of all, boundless love. And their stories are worth sharing and learning from.
As the drama unfolded, three friends Samar Halarnkar, Priya Ramani and Niloufer Venkatraman decided it was high time to take an idea they’d been discussing off the backburner. India Love Project (ILP) would be an online journal of sorts, documenting the stories of relationships pushing the boundaries of caste and religion. On 28th October 2020, the Instagram page @indialoveproject began with its first post, telling the love story of Venkatraman’s Parsi mother and Hindu-Tamilian father, who were both ardent supporters of interfaith love and adoption.
It was a near-instant hit on Instagram. Every day, a new post peeks into the photo albums and memories of happy inter-faith, inter-caste couples in the country: all exemplary tales of love triumphing over great odds.
Niloufer Venkatraman made valuable time to email with SEEMA about this lovely initiative.
What drove you to begin the India Love Project page? Was it something you’d always been thinking about?
The three of us co-founders had been discussing for about a year the idea building a comprehensive website with longer stories of interfaith love and relationships outside the boundaries and norms of mainstream society, and providing some legal support to those who need it. However, we never found the time or the money to do it. After the Tanishq incident, however, we thought it’s best to start off immediately with a less ambitious version on Instagram. We literally launched without a plan or strategy.
What brought you three (Priya, Samar and Niloufer) together to work on this? What role do each of you play in ILP?
Priya and I have been friends for 30 years. Samar and Priya have been married 21 years so we’ve all known each other for a very long time. As friends we were already talking about doing something like this. Why? Because all around us we’re seeing this unacceptable and disheartening increase in demonizing and hating on interfaith marriages and we wanted to spread the word that interfaith and any other non-mainstream relationships and marriages have been happening in India for decades and that they continue to take place. They are not some strange deviant behaviour.
All of us have day jobs and are extremely busy so we share the tasks of sourcing, editing, posting, replying to people, giving interviews. Whenever any of us has a little time, we do what needs to be done to get a story out for the next day, respond to people who need help, and connect them with the right professionals, and keep the ball rolling.
How do you typically find stories? Do most of your stories come via your submission form? There are a few “as told to” stories: how do you go about sourcing these?
Yes, most of our stories do come via our submission form. People do DM us on social media and we direct them to submit the story via the form. We also actively solicit stories and approach people we know who have interesting stories to tell. Sometimes readers or friends suggest stories of people who may not be on social media and we approach them.
What’s your vision for the page. Do you see it growing outside of social media, perhaps into a book, support group or a real physical archive?
We literally started off without any grand plan. Without any idea of how often we would post, where we would get stories from or anything very concrete. We just knew we wanted to tell these stories and we wanted to support those who want to make such choices, if they’re not getting support from their environment. The response has been overwhelming and we’ve been able to post every day now from 28th October 2020.
We’ve also started supporting couples who seek help. When we’re approached for help we direct people to existing organizations that have professionals who can help them, or to some lawyers who’ve volunteered their time to help people with advice, and also to The Listener’s Collective when people need to talk to a mental health professional or counsellor.
We hope ILP becomes a community where those seeking love beyond society’s traditional confines can find advice, support and inspiration. At some point we expect that we will expand and do other things with it and maybe even launch a full website (which was our original idea). Right now, it’s one week at a time, posting stories and connecting those who reach out to us to the right kind of professional who can help them.
Now that you’ve been collecting and curating these stories for a few months, what stands out in common among all the couples you see?
The common themes that you see in a lot of stories is that humanity trumps everything, that religion is not people’s defining identity and the acceptance of difference. That’s something that is heartening for all of us. Now if only we could spread that idea further in our society.
For Niloufer: Your parents were ardent supporters of inter-caste/inter-religious marriages and being a child of one yourself, you’ve spoken about being called “mongrel” in school. How has that influenced you and your work today?
My parents were supporters of interfaith marriages and adoptions so I grew up thinking that was the norm. I think it came as a bit of a surprise to me later that actually we were the exception. How has that influenced me? I guess it has made me want to support all forms of people’s personal choices especially when they are fighting against the conservative and rigid norms of their family and society. The way I live my life is to scorn and challenge repressive behaviour that I see around me whether on matters of caste, religion, gender, skin colour, race etc. I certainly don’t spare people when I hear them being bigoted.
I guess my background in some way motivates me to spread the word (through India Love Project) that interfaith and any other non-mainstream union is fine and normal. That all kinds of relationships are possible and acceptable and do exist. That this act of loving who you want to is not an anomaly. I feel like young people today who are only hearing divisive narratives, and being forced to follow rigid rules about their relationships, really need to hear these other voices – they need to hear that making choices outside the norm is also part of the real India.
What is the biggest takeaway you’ve had from putting India Love Project together? Any surprising/unexpected learnings? Interesting events?
We have been surprised and overwhelmed with the response. We began with two stories, mine and another friend. Immediately, stories started coming in and we’ve been swamped, which shows that there are many more interfaith couples willing to share their stories than we realised, despite all this love-jihad nonsense gaining ground. We had hoped as a second stage to offer legal and mental health counselling for those in interfaith relationships, but we had to act earlier than we expected as there are many struggling to find their way.
I think what we’ve learnt is that this project that was needed, it’s a project whose time was perhaps overdue. We are a country bursting with love stories ripe for the telling. We’ve learnt that people want to hear about love and not hate – that narrative really needs to change.
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