In India, boy meets girl, proposes — and gets accused of jihad
NEW DELHI — Inside a former army barracks, Simran Sagar sings a Hindi love song as she makes tea for her fiancé on what they hoped would be their wedding day. But their marriage keeps getting delayed.
Her voice echoes off the cold cement walls. "Like a shooting star that falls from the sky, our lives fell apart, darling," the lyrics go.
This is not how they imagined their first home together: a mattress on the floor, a hot plate to cook on and a police guard stationed out front. It's a secret safe house in India's capital, 200 miles from the village where they grew up.
Sagar, 22, is from India's Hindu majority, and her 26-year-old fiancé Mohammed Shameem is Muslim. They're among hundreds or possibly thousands of interfaith couples who've crossed state lines in recent months to try to marry far from home, according to activists helping them.
The couples are fleeing laws that prohibit "unlawful" religious conversion in the context of marriage. Hard-line Hindu conservatives have labeled it "love jihad" — a conspiracy theory accusing Muslim men of wooing Hindu women to force them to convert to Islam.
Muslim leaders deny this. India's Supreme Court has rejected the theory. But more than half a dozen of India's 29 states have introduced laws banning the use of marriage to push someone into converting.
Sagar and Shameem's is a love marriage, in a country where most unions are arranged by families. Their parents initially disapproved. And their different religions make them even more of a rarity. In today's India — where Hindu conservatives hold sway — it not only complicates their wedding plans, but leaves them ostracized and vulnerable to attack by extremists.
It starts with a love story
Sagar and Shameem met four years ago, at a test prep center in their hometown. They flirted between practice exams — his for a government job, hers for the police force. The plan was to graduate college, get good jobs and win their parents' acceptance.
Then last November, their state of Uttar Pradesh became the first in the nation to pass legislation to protect a bride or groom from being coerced to convert to their new spouse's religion.
With some 220 million people, Uttar Pradesh is India's most populous state — bigger than all but a handful of countries. Its chief minister, the equivalent of a state's governor, is a Hindu priest who's a close ally of India's prime minister.
The idea behind the "love jihad" laws is to halt forced conversions. But critics of India's Hindu nationalist government accuse it of amplifying an unfounded theory to consolidate Hindu votes across the country and spread hatred for Muslims.
Islam has about 200 million followers in India. They're India's largest minority, and one of the biggest Muslim communities in the world.
In practice, the "love jihad" laws have been used to arrest Muslim men — and Shameem was scared. He and Sagar were living apart with their respective families, when their state's law took effect.
"I felt like the ground shifted beneath my feet. I thought I'd lose Simran," he told NPR last spring in the dusty courtyard of their Delhi safe house, arranged by a nonprofit that helps interfaith couples flee violence.
"Neither of us was even thinking of converting religions," Shameem explains. "But I just knew this law would fuel hatred and intolerance."
"Why is that good Hindu girl dating a Muslim?"
Opinion polls show most Indians want to marry within their own religion, and they want their neighbors to do the same. The Pew Research Center recently found roughly two-thirds of Hindus in India want to prevent Hindu women from marrying outside their faith. An even larger proportion of Indian Muslims said the same about Muslim women.
Shameem and Sagar knew they were going against public opinion, especially in their rural village.
"People look at us with hatred, like, 'Why is that good Hindu girl dating a Muslim?'" Shameem says. "We're from a small town. It's conservative. People talk. So we used to have to go on dates secretly. Simran would cover her face with a scarf."
For some, interfaith marriage is a natural consequence of India's rapid development: Young people are migrating to big cities for jobs. Women are going to coed universities, joining the workforce and staying in it for longer. New technology — social media — also allows people to connect with others from different backgrounds — and even fall in love with them.
For others, all those changes are bewildering. Western-style development doesn't have to come with Western-style sexual mores, conservatives say. Particularly in rural areas, India is still a deeply conservative society where caste, tribe and religion dictate status — and where parents' authority is absolute. Consecutive electoral victories for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalists have mirrored a revival of Hindu pride that's also been accompanied by an uptick in attacks on India's minorities.
Shameem was right to be scared. Within days of the passage of his state's "love jihad" law, police started breaking up weddings. Extremists stepped up attacks on young couples.
"Before [the law's passage] there was some kind of space for such couples. But [now] the police are against it," says Asif Iqbal, co-founder of a national support group called Dhanak, "rainbow" in Urdu, which advocates for the right to choose one's own spouse and counsels thousands of interfaith couples annually, including Sagar and Shameem. "Even those who were supporting them or helping them — friends — are also keeping away from the marriage. They don't want to be witness to this, because they are scared."
Within days, Shameem and Sagar packed their bags. Sagar told her mother she was going to a job interview — and ran away with Shameem. Last December, they hopped on a bus to the capital Delhi, and switched off their phones.
"There were police checkpoints along the bus route, and we thought they were for us. We were holding hands," Sagar recalls. "We were scared."
On the other side, conservatives and civil duty
That same week, 100 miles away in another part of Uttar Pradesh, K.D. Sharma was mulling whether to attend a wedding he'd been invited to. The daughter of his Hindu neighbors was marrying a Muslim man.
Sharma, 42, runs a pharmaceutical factory in a suburb of Lucknow, the state capital. A devout Hindu, he has also been getting more involved in Hindu nationalist politics. (Hindu nationalism is a political movement that seeks to make India's Hindu faith the basis for the country's policies; Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is a Hindu nationalist party.)
A self-described conservative, Sharma says he nevertheless likes living in a religiously mixed neighborhood. It's a safe, quiet place to raise his family. But when it comes to marriage, he believes each religious group should stick with its own.
"I personally think interfaith marriage is wrong. It just leads to problems," Sharma tells NPR in a leafy park near his house, while his 6-year-old son plays nearby. "Why can't the guy find a Muslim wife?"
Still, he thought he should attend the wedding, out of courtesy to the bride's parents. He's known the young woman all her life.
"Of course, I had no grounds on which to object to this particular wedding — until they passed that law," he explains.
A week before the December 2020 wedding, Uttar Pradesh passed its law protecting brides and grooms from being coerced to change religions. Sharma wasn't sure whether his neighbor's marriage would involve any conversion. But just in case, he says he felt a civic duty to alert police.
Much to his surprise, the police initially didn't do much.
"They refused to do anything! They said, 'The bride and groom are adults. If their families are OK with the marriage, why are you objecting?'" Sharma recalls. "I told them I just want to make sure the law is followed. It's for the welfare of my community."
Frustrated with that police inaction, Sharma took his complaint to a group he was confident would do more: the Hindu Mahasabha.
Hindu supremacists feel emboldened
The Mahasabha is an Indian political party founded at the start of the 20th century, during British colonial rule, but it has evolved into a Hindu supremacist organization. It opposed Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolence campaign, and one of its members assassinated him in 1948. Today, the Mahasabha is a far-right fringe group that lobbies for the primacy of Hindu culture and religion. In 2015, one of its leaders called for Christians and Muslims to be forcibly sterilized. Another suggested that the Taj Mahal — a mausoleum built by a 17th century Indian Muslim ruler, which is India's best-known tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage Site — be demolished.
The group's Lucknow office is located on the second floor of a suburban shopping center, next to a dance club. When NPR visited in March, members stood and greeted visiting reporters with chants of "Jai Shri Ram!" — a slogan praising a Hindu god, which has also been used by Hindu supremacists during attacks on minority Muslims.
"We need to keep the Muslim population in check. Otherwise they reproduce and it puts a strain on India's health and education systems," the Mahasabha's local leader, Pankaj Tiwari, says in his office lined with posters of Hindu idols. "That's why we're working to stop interfaith marriages and conversions."
Tiwari says the Mahasabha keeps a national database of interfaith couples and tries to stop them from marrying. He would not divulge how many couples are on the list. He says he has felt emboldened since Modi was first elected prime minister in 2014, and especially since the 2020 passage of Uttar Pradesh's law.
During NPR's visit, Tiwari's staff crowded around to show off cellphone photos of the couples they've broken up. They used slurs to talk about Muslims.
"We have informants in every lane, in every neighborhood. We get a tip, and we make sure it gets passed to the police," another Mahasabha official, Mukesh Mani Mishra, explains. "And if the police don't act, then we go there and pressure them to intervene and stop the marriage — stop love jihad."
That's exactly what happened with the interfaith wedding in Sharma's neighborhood.
A wedding gets halted
When Sharma complained to them, Mahasabha members say they used their influence, and forced the police to act. Officers arrived at the bride's house hours before the wedding and halted the preparations.
NPR confirmed this with the bride's family, who were too frightened to speak at length on the record. They deny any wrongdoing. No religious conversion was planned, they said.
Months later, the couple remained unmarried. The bride's father told NPR his daughter's life was ruined.
Sharma says he runs into the bride's father often in their neighborhood, and it's awkward.
"When we pass in the street, we no longer say hello," Sharma admits. "But I have no regrets about what I did."
Instead, he says he's "energized." He would call the police on a wedding again, he says. Sharma worked in local politics in the past, and his new reputation as an enforcer of his state's "love jihad" law has bolstered his standing among Hindu nationalists.
He says lots of other neighbors — Hindus — congratulated him. "My neighbors praise me for what I did," he says.
At the neighborhood police station, officers tell NPR that all the inspectors involved in thwarting that particular wedding have since been transferred. No case file could be found. No one was willing to speak on the record about what had happened that day, or share evidence about why the marriage was stopped.
By phone, the deputy commissioner of police for Uttar Pradesh's southern district, Ravi Kumar, told NPR his officers never cooperate with any extremist groups.
Unending paperwork and threats of violence
Meanwhile, Sagar and Shameem spent the first half of 2021 in that secret safe house in Delhi, mired in marriage paperwork. Sagar had never been so far from home.
"I had messages from my parents, crying, begging me to come back. They never thought I'd do something like this," she says. "I was an obedient child. I was good at school. I did all my chores."
Now she felt like a rebel, even a criminal.
As of July, at least 80 people had been jailed in Uttar Pradesh under the "love jihad" law, according to local media. Most of them are Muslim men.
Indian national law does allow interfaith couples to marry, under a provision called the Special Marriage Act of 1954. But it can be a long process. They have to establish residency, notify local officials of their intention to marry and observe a waiting period — during which anyone is allowed to lodge an objection. All the objections must be investigated, which takes time.
"So if their families or neighbors are opposed, they can't get married there. They have to move to another state," explains Iqbal, the support group co-founder.
Iqbal helped Sagar and Shameem apply for space to stay in the Delhi safe house where NPR interviewed them. The facility is a former army barracks and is run by the local government in order to protect interfaith and inter-caste couples from violence.
Last year, India recorded more than 3,000 murders related to honor, love affairs or illicit relationships, according to government figures. It's difficult to know how many of those were interfaith couples. And the real numbers are likely many times higher.
Short of murder, rights groups say attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims, have spiked under Modi's Hindu nationalist rule. That includes attacks on interfaith couples, which have become so common that some state governments have issued guidelines on how to protect them.
Still, city clerks often refuse to process paperwork for interfaith couples. Others leak couples' names and addresses to extremist groups, including the Hindu Mahasabha.
"The term 'love jihad' is very dangerous, because once you get labeled like that, everyone starts looking at you with hatred. People think that you've wronged a woman from their community, so they want to punish you," Shameem says. "That's what makes it scary."
Sagar and Shameem didn't come under attack. But every government appointment triggered fear. NPR accompanied them in March to a court appearance and police meeting, where officials scrutinized their marriage paperwork over and over again.
"This particular marriage officer is making it difficult for them," Iqbal explains in a whisper, as he waits for Shameem to come out of a Delhi police station. "There is a fear prevalent in authorities. They too are becoming more cautious."
Iqbal says he examines the names of court clerks, judges and police, to try to discern their religious background, and any possible bias. Both Hindu and Muslim officials give the couples trouble, he says.
After months of paperwork, Sagar and Shameem faced another bureaucratic hurdle: COVID-19. In April and May, India was hit with the world's biggest and deadliest outbreak. The couple remained healthy. But government offices were shut. India went into lockdown.
A rare happy ending, and a warning
NPR lost touch with Shameem and Sagar for a few months, during the worst of the pandemic. They'd been stuck in their Delhi safe house, in limbo.
But in August, Shameem delivered some good news: He's landed an engineering job. Sagar has resumed her studies to be a police officer. They both got vaccinated against COVID-19.
And the paperwork finally came through: They're married.
They've moved back to their hometown in conservative, rural Uttar Pradesh, and are currently living with Shameem's family, which has always been a bit more open to the idea of their marriage — though Sagar's parents have finally come around to accepting them as a couple, too.
Now they're hoping the rest of society will. But they're still frightened.
"More than our families, it's the community that we were worried about, because there are organizations that don't want people from different religions to come together and marry," Shameem explains. "Politicians don't like this."
NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report.
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