Rights groups say there has been an increase in violence against interreligious couples perpetrated by hardline Hindu groups in recent years.
Arbaaz Mulla’s love story began, as romances often do, when he first laid eyes on the woman of his dreams, Shweta Kumbhar.
In about three years, their courtship was like no other couple in many ways and they promised to marry each other. But those secret vows will never be fulfilled.
The romance so enraged the relatives of a Hindu, Kumbhar, that they allegedly hired members of a right-wing Hindu nationalist group to kill the 24-year-old Mullah, who was a Muslim.
According to the police, he did exactly that. His bloodied and mutilated body was found on a railway track on 28 September.
While inter-religious unions between Hindus and Muslims are rare in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu nationalists have called it “love jihad”.
The infamous conspiracy theory holds that allegedly violent Muslim men trick women into forcing women to change their religion with the aim of establishing supremacy in a Hindu-majority nation.
The issue of “love jihad” has pitted the BJP against secular activists who warn it to undermine constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and put Muslims in the crosshairs of Hindu nationalists, one encouraged by the prime minister who have mostly remained silent about the escalating attacks on Muslims. First elected in 2014.
Mohan Rao, a retired professor of social sciences at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, “This conspiracy theory portrays Muslim as another and creates victimization and fear among Hindus that India is going to turn into a Muslim country.” ” Inter-religious marriage.
BJP spokesperson Gopal Krishna Agarwal said the party had no objection in principle to inter-religious marriages, which are legal, but suggested that concerns about “love jihad” were legitimate.
“It is not acceptable to convert anyone by means of financial means, or to forcefully, or for any kind of motive,” Agarwal said.
India’s National Investigation Agency and some court rulings have dismissed the theory of “love jihad” as baseless. Census data shows that the country’s religious mix has remained stable since 1951, and India remains predominantly Hindu, with Muslims making up about 14 percent of its 1.4 billion people.
However, rights groups say violence against interreligious couples has increased in recent years, carried out by hardline Hindu nationalists to prevent such relationships. Hundreds of Muslim men have been attacked, and many couples have been forced into hiding. Some have been killed.
‘I knew how it could end’
It was against that backdrop of fear that Mulla and Kumbhar began dating in late 2018 in the town of Belagavi in the southern state of Karnataka.
Mulla’s mother Nazima Shaikh was worried. She was very aware of the frequent reports about inter-religious couples in Karnataka, which is ruled by Modi’s party.
“I was upset because I knew how it could end,” Sheikh said in a recent afternoon at his simple home.
He tried to persuade Mulla to end the relationship, but he refused.
Meanwhile, there was chaos in Kumbhar’s family. Shaikh said that she appealed to him to give her blessings to the relationship but was told that “they will kill or kill but will not allow their daughter to marry my son”.
Soon, Mulla started receiving threatening calls. First, they came from the family of Kumbhar, then members of the hardline Hindu nationalist group Shri Ram Sena Hindustan, or Lord Rama’s army in India. He demanded money and broke ties with Kumbhar for the sake of Mulla.
Kumbhar’s parents also tried to stop him from seeing him, so the couple started meeting secretly in far-flung towns and countryside farms, according to friends.
When the threats intensified, Mulla reluctantly agreed to end the relationship, after saying it meant he would no longer be harassed. But the couple continued to correspond in secret—and their families were outraged when they found out. It was not long before he was called to meet again with the members of Shri Ram Sena Hindustan.
Investigators say that at the meeting, members of Shri Ram Sena Hindustan beat Mulla with clubs and beheaded him with knives. They then allegedly placed her body on the railway tracks to make it look like she died when a train ran over her.
Ten people were soon arrested, although formal charges have yet to be brought. These include Kumbhar’s parents, who have confessed to paying the killers, according to senior investigator Laxman Nimbargi.
The Associated Press news agency was unable to speak to Kumbhar. After being in police custody for a short time, she is now living with relatives who refused to provide her or even tell where she was.
Shri Ram Sena Hindustan denied that its members killed Mulla and said the group was coming under fire for “working for the benefit of Hindus”.
Its leader Ramakant Konduskar, who describes himself as a foot soldier in the fight to save Hinduism, said that he is not against any religion but people should marry within themselves. He considers “love jihad” to be a threat to society.
Some jurisdictions governed by Modi’s party are now trying to codify that sentiment into law.
Last year, legislators in Uttar Pradesh passed India’s first “love jihad” law, which required couples of different religions to give two months’ notice to an official before getting married.
Under the law, it is up to the officer to determine whether the conversion occurred through compulsion, a crime that could carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Because officials can make couples’ names public during the process, radicals have sometimes pressured women’s families to accuse women of forced conversions.
About 100 people have been arrested under the law so far, though only a few have been convicted. Three other BJP-ruled states have also introduced similar measures.
Critics say the bills violate the constitutional right to privacy. They also see the laws as deeply patriarchal.
Renu Mishra, a lawyer and women’s rights activist in Uttar Pradesh, said, “Women are not property.”
Some liberal activists, most of whom are Hindus, have formed social and legal support groups for interreligious couples and celebrate their stories on social media.
But the relatively small city of Belagavi lacks such resources and support. The state of Karnataka has recently seen a surge in anti-Muslim attacks, adding to the fear among the community.
According to people close to him, in that environment, Mulla felt that he had nowhere to turn.
Shaikh said, “My son made the terrible mistake of loving a Hindu woman.”
She paused, searching for the right words, before continuing, “Is that what it takes to love someone?”