Interfaith love is a danger amid the rush of Hindu nationalism in India
BLAGAVI, India (Associated Press) – Arbaaz Mullah’s love story began, as novels often do, when he first laid eyes on the woman of his dreams, Shweta Kumbar.
For nearly three years, their relationship’s courtship was in many ways similar to that of any other couple: they went on dates and movies, took selfies, went to parks, and made marriage vows to each other. But those secret promises will never come true.
This romance angered the relatives of Kumbhar, a Hindu, so much that they hired members of a hard-line Hindu nationalist group to kill the 24-year-old mullah, who was a Muslim.
They did exactly that, according to the police. On September 28, his bloodied and dismembered body was found along the railway tracks.
While interfaith unions between Hindus and Muslims are rare in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has denounced the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and other Hindu nationalists with force of what they call a “love jihad”. A corrupt conspiracy theory holds that predatory Muslim men deceive women into coercing them to convert their religion, with the ultimate goal of establishing dominance in the Hindu-majority nation.
The case of “love jihad” has pitted the BJP against secular activists who have warned it undermines constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and puts Muslims in the crosshairs of hard-line Hindu nationalists, emboldened by a prime minister who has remained mostly silent about increasing attacks on Muslims since he was first elected in year 2014.
said Mohan Rao, a retired professor of social sciences at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has conducted research on interfaith marriage. “This is ridiculous.”
Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a BJP spokesman, said the party had no objection in principle to interfaith marriage, which is legal, but noted that concerns about “love jihad” were valid.
“The BJP is not totally against interfaith marriage. It is an individual choice,” Agarwal said. “But tempting someone through financial means, some coercion, or some kind of motivation to convert, that is unacceptable.”
India’s National Investigation Agency and some court rulings have dismissed the “love jihad” theory as unfounded. Census data shows that the country’s religious mix has been stable since 1951, and India remains predominantly Hindu with Muslims making up around 14% of its 1.4 billion population.
However, rights groups say violence against couples of different faiths has increased in recent years, perpetrated by hard-line Hindu nationalists to stop such relationships. Hundreds of Muslim men were assaulted, and many husbands were forced into hiding. Some were killed.
Against this background of fear, Al Mulla and Kumpar started dating in 2018 in the city of Bilagavi in the southern state of Karnataka.
They hit her right away. But soon in their conservative neighbourhood, rumors of a love affair between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man spread.
The mullah’s mother, Nassima Sheikh, was worried. She was well aware of frequent news stories of interfaith couples being targeted in Karnataka, which is ruled by Modi’s party.
“I was uneasy because I knew how it could end,” the sheikh said.
She tried to persuade Mullah to end the relationship, but he refused. Their love was so great and he was determined.
Meanwhile, the Compar family was terrified. Sheikh said she pleaded with them to bless the relationship, but were told that they “would be killed or be killed but would not allow their daughter to marry my son.”
Soon, Mullah started receiving threatening calls. They came first from the Kumbar family, then from members of the hard-line Hindu nationalist group Sri Ram Sena Hindustan, or the army of Lord Ram in India. They demanded money and money to separate from Kumbar.
Compar’s parents also sought to prevent her from seeing him, so the couple began meeting secretly in distant towns and in the fields in the country, according to his friends.
When the threats escalated, the mullah reluctantly agreed to end the relationship after being told it meant he wouldn’t be upset anymore. But the couple continued the correspondence in secret – and her family was furious when they found out. It wasn’t long before he was called to meet the members of Sri Ram Sena Hindustan again.
Late that night the phone rang at the Sheikh’s house.
“Life will never be the same,” she said.
Investigators say that at the meeting, members of Sri Ram Sena Hindustan beat the mullah with batons and cut off his head with a knife. It was then alleged that they placed his body on a railroad track to try to make it look like he had died when a train was run over.
Soon, ten people were arrested, although formal charges have yet to be brought. Among them are Kumbar’s parents, who, according to senior investigator Laxman Nimbarjee, confessed to paying the killers.
The Associated Press was unable to speak with Compar. After a brief period in police custody, she is now staying with relatives who have refused to make her available or even locate her.
Sri Ram Sena Hindustan denied killing the mullah and said the group was being targeted “to work for Hindus”.
Its leader, Ramkant Konduskar, a self-described foot soldier in the battle to save Hinduism, said that he is not against any religion but that people should marry within their own religion. The “love jihad” is considered a danger to society.
“Our Hindu culture is thousands of years old, and we have to preserve and value it,” he said.
A 2020 Pew Research Center study found that nearly two-thirds of Hindus in India want to prevent extra-faith marriages. A larger proportion of Muslims, nearly 80%, said they supported banning interfaith marriages.
Some jurisdictions governed by Modi’s party have begun to try to codify this sentiment into law.
Last year, lawmakers in Uttar Pradesh, chaired by Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, passed India’s first “love jihad” bill, which requires couples of different faiths to give two months’ official notice before marriage. The legislation applies to all interfaith marriages but primarily affects Muslims because Islam requires a non-Muslim to convert in order to sanctify the union.
By law, it is up to the official to determine whether the conversion occurred through coercion, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Because authorities can publish the names of husbands during the process, hardliners have sometimes stepped in to pressure women’s families to bring charges of forced conversion.
Experts say that proving forced conversion is not easy unless the woman admits it because she always signs a pre-marital statement saying she is ready for it.
So far nearly 100 people have been arrested under the law, although only a few have been convicted. Three other BJP-ruled states have introduced similar measures.
Critics say the bills violate the constitutional right to privacy. They also view the laws as highly patriarchal in that they target Hindu women, and are portrayed as unhappy victims of Muslim men.
“Women are not assets,” said Renu Mishra, a lawyer and women’s rights activist in Uttar Pradesh. “They can make their own decisions, and no one has the right to tell them who they like and who they don’t.”
Others fear the laws could further widen religious fault lines and accuse the BJP of fanning delusional fears.
“What the love jihad theory does with great success is introducing demographic concerns, and it is a powerful political weapon,” said Rao, the retired professor.
Couples in big cities like New Delhi and Mumbai are increasingly likely to avoid traditional norms such as arranged marriages and choosing life partners regardless of religion. Some liberal activists, mostly Hindus, have formed social and legal help groups for interfaith couples and celebrate their stories on social media.
But in Belajavi, a relatively small city, such resources and support are lacking. Karnataka has recently seen a rise in attacks against Muslims, exacerbating fears among the community.
In that environment, the mullah felt he had nowhere to turn, according to those close to him.
“Loving someone is not a crime. It just happens. Nobody can plan that,” said Hyder Khan, one of his friends. “But in these times it is very difficult to be a Muslim and fall in love with someone of another religion.”
Another friend, Muzaffar Tinwal, recalled that he was rushing to the scene on his motorcycle after learning of the killing. With it in mind, he said, “his mind just stopped working.”
The decapitated body of the mullah was lying on the ground with her hands tightly bound behind his back, his head on the edge of the railroad and his severed legs scattered.
It was Tinwal who called the Sheikh to give him the news that night. The next morning, the police called her to identify the body.
“My son made a terrible mistake when he fell in love with a Hindu woman,” said a sheikh on a recent afternoon in her modest home in a crowded neighborhood where electrical wires crisscrossed the streets. She paused, looking for the right words, before continuing, “Is that what you get for loving someone?”
Associated Press reporters Shonal Ganguly, Ijaz Rahi, and Chunshui Ngachangva contributed to this report.
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