The most strident criticism of UP's anti-conversion ordinance has come from the judiciary with several retired Supreme Court and high court judges having described it as being violative of Article 14 (Right to Equality), 15 (Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion), 21 (Right to Life) and 25 (Freedom of conscience) of the Constitution, points out Rashme Sehgal.
We are being pummelled back to the dark ages.
2020 has seen women not only having to combat COVID-19, economic distress, increasing levels of domestic violence and the added responsibility of teaching kids who are unable to attend school.
If this was not scourge enough, we now find the women of Uttar Pradesh facing the worst possible violence being inflicted on them by none other than a draconian state.
Their crime being that they have chosen to marry men outside their faith.
Take the case of the Etah couple where the police has issued warrants of arrest against the groom Javed Ansari and 20 of his relatives including three women relatives.
A virtual manhunt was launched by the UP police leading to the arrest of Javed's father, elder brother, cousin, cousin's friend, three brothers-in-law, father-in-law, father-in-law's brother and his son on the morning of December 22.
With five of them still not traceable, the police are offering a reward of Rs 25,000 each to anyone who will inform the cops of their whereabouts as though they are hardened criminals.
The bride Ayushi Pachauri who chose to become a Muslim and adopt the name of Ayesha was taken into custody on December 23 having been found in the home of a friend of Javed who lived near Karkarduma metro station in Delhi.
She has been brought back to Etah.
She refused to speak to the police insisting she would give her statement only when she was presented in front of a court of law.
Her lawyer claimed that Ayushi Pachauri came to her chamber in Delhi in early November and asked him to help her legally convert to Islam.
The lawyer Mohammed Ansari made an affidavit, which she signed, attesting that she had converted voluntarily converted to Islam.
Javed and she were neighbours.
Javed ran a cloth shop and was doing reasonably well.
They were attracted to each other and chose to get married.
But this freedom of choice carries no weight with the state administration with all arrests of Javed's family members having been made under the anti-conversion law.
Conscious that her conversion would spark off trouble, Ayesha had the foresight to send a declaration to the SSP and SHO of Jalesar, saying that her husband's family members should not be harassed as she had chosen to marry her husband out of her own choice.
A similar declaration was sent to the National Commission for Women.
Ayesha went missing from her home from mid-November, but her father, a local businessman filed an FIR at the Jalesar thana on December 17 after he received a legal notice informing him of her conversion to Islam and of her decision to marry Javed Ansari.
The same kind of overdrive is being shown in tracking down all the reports of interfaith marriages that come their way.
Even the strictures of the Allahabad high court stating that couples are free to marry according to their choice, a freedom guaranteed by the Constitution, has not deterred either the police or Bajrang Dal activists to go after these couples.
The UP chief minister's recent moves while targeting the Muslim community, is also subjecting numerous Hindu women to unimaginable misery and attacks.
The story of Muskan (Pinky) is probably the most heart rendering of all.
This young Hindu woman was living alone in Dehra Dun and working for a finance company when she met Mohammed Rashid who ran a salon.
They fell in love and got married in July 2020.
It needs to be emphasised that in many of these interfaith marriages, no dowry has been sought as is the case in the majority of Hindu marriages even with those belonging to the lower socio-economic levels.
A simple nikaah ceremony takes place performed by a qazi.
Soon, she was pregnant.
Rashid's mother Naseema became apprehensive following the passing of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020.
Living as she was in Moradabad district, she felt it would be safer in the long run if they got their marriage registered in UP.
That turned out to be a complete miscalculation because Rashid and Muskan, on their way to get the marriage registered, were accosted by a Bajrang Dal mob who roughed them up.
Muskan informed the mob that she was a major and that her marriage took place almost six months before the enactment of the anti-conversion law.
But this did not cut any ice with the mob or with the cops.
The couple were arrested and while Rashid was jailed, the pregnant Muskan was sent to a shelter home where her condition worsened and she suffered an abortion.
What had led Muskan's mother to file an FIR against Rashid alleging he had pretended to be a Hindu in order to marry a Hindu girl? Muskan believes her mother simply parroted everything that the Bajrang Dal asked her to do.
Fortunately, the district court has ordered their release.
But already since November 28, over 30 people have been arrested under 11 different FIRs lodged across nine districts of UP.
The police overdrive can be seen from the fact that recently they stopped a marriage ceremony only to discover that both the girl and boy were Muslims.
In another bizarre case, Mohammed Asif working in a medical store near Lucknow fell in love with 21-year-old Raina Gupta, a neighbour who was daughter of a driver and of a domestic help.
This time around, the families of the bride and groom's marriage gave their consent and the marriage was solemnised on December 2 with the bridegroom agreeing to follow all the Hindu rituals.
Once again, the police barged into the wedding and dragged the family members to the police thana.
The families were set free only after the couple assured the police that no one was converting their faith.
Vigilante groups have sprung up in practically every city of UP.
In the Ayesha case, it was these Bajrang Dal groups who first informed the police about the interfaith wedding.
Members of these groups visit these marriage offices on a daily basis and wherever a notice is put of a marriage taking place under the Special Marriage Act in UP, with photos and addresses of couples being put up on display, they will go and visit the homes of the couple in order to intimidate them as also tip off the police.
Fortunately, the public notice provision is currently under challenge in the Supreme Court.
The most strident criticism of this anti-conversion ordinance has come from the judiciary with several retired Supreme Court and high court judges having described it as being violative of Article 14 (Right to Equality), 15 (Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion), 21 (Right to Life) and 25 (Freedom of conscience).
Retired Supreme Court judge Madan Lokur pointed out that laws against interfaith marriages were violative of jurisprudence as developed by the Supreme Court.
Justice Lokur, during the course of a public lecture, quoted repeated what the UP chief minister had stated publicly 'If these jihadis don't mend their ways, it is the beginning of their journey to their graves'.
Justice Lokur asked, 'Is this possible death sentence already pronounced sanctioned under the Constitution or by law? This seems to be a resurgence of mob lynching. What about the freedom of choice?'
It was the judiciary which came to the rescue of Simran Sagar and Shamim who are in a relationship.
Residents of Shahjahanpur, they chose to elope when pressure was being put on Simran to marry a man of her parents' choice.
They moved the Delhi high court to be given protection. On December 22, the couple moved into a government safe house and are living as a couple.
'This is a special moment for us. We want to show the world there is only love between us, no jihad,' Simran has said.
But the Bajrang Dal activists are relentless in getting all and sundry prosecuted under this malevolent law.
On December 14, a 16-year-old girl from Bijnor was walking home after attending a birthday party in the company of a former Muslim classmate when they were allegedly chased by a group of men.
When these goons learned that the boy was a Muslim, he was taken to the local police thana where he has been booked under the anti-conversion ordinance and also slapped with the more dangerous SC/ST Act and POSCO.
The girl student is standing her ground and has told the local magistrate that these men had a problem to see her walking home with this boy.
The situation took a turn for the worse when the father, under pressure from the goonda and the cops, registered a complaint that the boy 'was inducing the girl to elope with him Swith the intention to marry and convert her'.
The father denied making this complaint, insisting he trusted his daughter completely.
The damage has been done and the boy is presently lodged in a jail in Bijnor and the mother is running from pillar to post to get her seventeen year old freed.
It is the women who are displaying amazing courage by speaking out against the Bajrang Dal.
None of these women come from wealthy backgrounds.
Rather, many are downright poor.
Two of these women belong to the SC/ST category.
They are fighting to protect their right to choose a life partner even when their parents are not supportive of their decision.
More important, these women are raising their voices in small town India where the Bajrang Dal is in a position to inflict violence.
Many of these couples have been beaten up as is evident from the videos with the police playing the role of mute witnesses or else on an overdrive to intimidate and arrest these couples.
Two writ petitions to declare this ordinance as ultra vires* have been filed in the Allahabad high court and also the Supreme Court.
These petitions have been clubbed together and will be heard by the Allahabad high court on January 7.
For the women in India, this is an extremely important date given that four other states -- Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana and Assam -- plan to introduce a similar ordinance.
*Ultra vires translates to 'beyond the powers'. It is used to describe an act which requires legal authority or power, but is then completed outside of or without the requisite authority.
Rashme Sehgal has had a long career in journalism and has worked for The Times of India, The Indian Post among other newspapers.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com