By Shweta Bhandral
I belong to a generation that grew up listening to Bryan Adams singing, “When you love someone, you’ll sacrifice.” Bollywood movies confirmed this belief. They also told us love is unconditional, selfless and, in the end, everyone will be happy. And yet the situation on the ground is not exactly what we have been told, and the year 2020 proved to be the acid test of love – from marital conflict in the lockdown, to wedding plans going awry, to interfaith couples being harassed by regressive laws.
The pandemic took a toll on intimate relationships as couples were bound together at home for days on end. China started reporting strains in couple relationships early on, with a 25 percent increase in divorce cases and enquiries in March 2020.
In UK, law firm Stewarts witnessed a whopping 122 percent jump in divorce applications in the period July to October 2020. In the US, the website Legal Template reported a 34 percent increase in their sale of basic divorce agreements.
In India, though metros like Mumbai and Delhi did report a sharp increase in divorce cases being filed post-pandemic, there is no such data from small towns or the villages, where divorce rates are usually less than one percent.
eShe’s relationship survey in August 2020 laid bare most stereotypes about marriage and gender roles in India: that marriage requires ‘adjustment’ mostly on the woman’s part; that domestic work is a woman’s responsibility; that husbands doing housework are an aberration.
It also found that women were exhausted or even facing mental health issues doing double duty at work and home during the pandemic. And yet, despite it all, 50 percent reported that their relationships had improved and 40 percent said they were the same before and after lockdown.
My feminist brain detests this kind of love as an adjustment, but it is this very idea that perhaps kept ‘love alive’ in these difficult times. I witnessed stories of women who were thinking of separation or questioning the need for a man in their life take a complete U-turn after the lockdown. They decided to give their relationship one last chance. Some compromised because of the children, while an encounter with Covid changed the equation in others.
Restriction on large gatherings disturbed many marriage plans in 2020, such as Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor’s. But others did not allow even a pandemic to come in the way of love and destiny. Actor Rana Daggubati married designer Miheeka Bajaj, while singers Neha Kakkar and Rohanpreet Singh too got hitched in 2020.
Some couples – like actor Navya Rao and IT professional Varun C Sai – admitted saving nearly 80 percent in wedding expense bills, while others took advantage of the ‘small gathering’ rules to having memorable ceremonies with their loved ones without the pressure of hundreds of guests.
Wedding organisers also tweaked their offerings. Wedding cards were shared on WhatsApp; wedding meals and sweets were delivered to guests’ homes with a request to attend the online nuptials; and Zoom weddings become a norm.
Being bound at home alone also appears to have triggered the desire for a companion in some. Online matchmaking platform shaadi.com reported a 30 percent surge in search during the lockdown.
But love in India got hardest hit in the last quarter of 2020. As the country unlocked, its failed economy and massive loss of jobs became a grave concern. To distract public attention, politicians in cahoots with thugs began harassing inter-religious couples, terming them cases of ‘love jihad’, an insidious political and patriarchal campaign to control Hindu women and harass Muslim men. Several such cases were reported from Kanpur alone.
Then came an advertisement from jewellery giant Tanishq. Though the ad only showed a happy Hindu woman interacting with her Muslim mother-in-law, it drew so much flak on social media from right-wing trolls that the brand had to finally withdraw the campaign.
To counter this vicious rhetoric, journalist couple Priya Ramani and Samar Halarnkar and their friend Niloufer Venkatraman launched India Love Project on Instagram.
People from different walks of life share love and marriage stories outside the constraints of religion, ethnicity, community, and gender. The aim of such initiatives is to reassure India’s youth that interfaith marriage is neither new nor a problem.
However, bolstered by hashtag campaigns, Uttar Pradesh politicians lost no time in enforcing an anti-conversion law in November 2020. Further harassment followed; inter-religious weddings were disrupted, women were threatened, and dozens of Muslim men have been arrested since then.
In one case, a Muslim teenager was beaten up and jailed simply for walking with a Hindu girl on their way back from a birthday party. In another case, a woman who had married out of her own choice was forcibly sent to a shelter home, where she miscarried due to torture.
This concept of ‘love jihad’ takes the misogynistic ideology of the regressive Khap Panchayats (local governing bodies in villages) a step further when it comes to curbing women’s fundamental rights. Instead of moving a step forward towards women’s empowerment, India has firmly taken 20 steps back into the past, binding women in caste, religion, and the diktats of their family and community leaders.
Politically motivated bullies are not just against interfaith marriage. They are against love in general. Groups such as the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad act as the moral police claiming to save Indian youth from ‘Western influences’, disrupting Valentine’s Day celebrations year after year.
From Heer-Ranjha and Laila-Majnu, to Sohni-Mahiwal, Shirin-Farhad and Mirza-Sahiba, our culture’s greatest love stories – interfaith or not – are inevitably tragedies, and couples doomed to opposition, separation or even death.
Isn’t it ironical that while we teach our youth the virtues of love, the communities we live in draw boundaries and deny them that very basic and uplifting of human emotions?
Representative images: Pexels