Interfaith love at risk amid India’s Hindu nationalist surge

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Arbaaz Mulla’s love story began, as romances often do, when he first laid eyes on the woman of his dreams, Shweta Kumbhar.

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For almost three years, their courtship was in many ways like any other couple: they went on dates and went to the movies, took selfies, frequented public parks, promised to marry each other. But those secret vows will never be fulfilled.

The romance enraged the relatives of a Hindu, Kumbhar, that they allegedly hired members of a hardline Hindu nationalist group to kill the 24-year-old Mullah, who was a Muslim. According to the police, he did exactly that. On 28 September, his bloodied and mutilated body was found on a section of railway tracks.


While inter-religious unions between Hindus and Muslims are rare in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and other Hindu nationalists forcefully called it “love jihad”. The discredited conspiracy theory holds that allegedly predatory Muslim men trick women into forcing women to change their religion, with the ultimate aim of establishing supremacy in the majority-Hindu nation.

The issue of “love jihad” has pitted the BJP against secular activists who warn it would undermine constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and put Muslims in the crosshairs of staunch Hindu nationalists, who have been criticized by a prime minister. encouraged, who have mostly remained silent about the escalating attacks on Muslims. Since he was first elected in 2014.

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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. “this is absurd.”

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.

“BJP is not completely against inter-religious marriages. Basically, it is a personal choice,” said Agarwal. “But it is not acceptable to tempt someone to convert for financial means, or by any coercion, or for any kind of motive.”

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 accounting for about 14% of its 1.4 billion people.

Nonetheless, rights groups say there has been an increase in violence against interreligious couples in recent years, carried out by hardline Hindu nationalists to stifle such ties. Hundreds of Muslim men have been attacked, and many couples have been forced into hiding. Some have been killed.

It was against that backdrop of fear that Mulla and Kumbhar started dating in 2018 in the city of Belagavi in ​​the southern state of Karnataka.

He hit it off immediately. But soon their conservative neighborhood was filled with gossip about a romance between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man.

Mulla’s mother Nazima Shaikh was worried. She was all too familiar with the frequent reports of inter-religious couples being targeted in Karnataka, which is ruled by Modi’s party.

“I was upset because I knew how it could end,” Shaikh said.

He tried to persuade Mulla to end the relationship, but he refused. His love was immense, and he was steadfast.

Meanwhile, there was chaos in Kumbhar’s family. Shaikh said that he appealed to them to give his 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 dangers mount, Mulla reluctantly agrees to end the relationship, after saying it means he will no longer be bothered. But the couple continued to correspond in secret—and her family was outraged when they found out. It was not long before he was called to meet again with the members of Shri Ram Sena Hindustan.

Late night a call came at Sheikh’s house.

“Life will never be the same,” she said.

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 Lakshman Nimbargi.

The Associated Press was not able 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 being targeted for “working for the benefit of Hindus”.

Its leader Ramakant Konduskar, who described 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.

“Our Hindu culture is thousands of years old,” he said, “and we must preserve and value it.”

A 2020 Pew Research Center study found that nearly two-thirds of Hindus in India want to stop marrying outside their own religion. A large proportion of Muslims, around 80%, said they favor stopping inter-religious marriages.

Some jurisdictions governed by Modi’s party have begun trying to codify that sentiment into law.

Last year lawmakers in the Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath-led state of Uttar Pradesh passed India’s first “love jihad” bill, which requires couples of different religions to give two months’ notice to an official before getting married. This law applies to all inter-religious marriages but primarily affects Muslims because Islam requires a non-Muslim to convert to sanctify the union.

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 them of forced conversions.

Experts say that unless the woman accepts it, it is not easy to prove that she signs a statement before marriage that she is ready.

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 patriarchal in that they target Hindu women, who are portrayed as helpless victims of Muslim men.

Renu Mishra, a lawyer and women’s rights activist in Uttar Pradesh, said, “Women are not property.” “They can make their own decisions, and no one has the right to be told who to love and who not to love.”

Others worry that the laws may further stretch religious fault lines and accuse the BJP of creating imaginary fear.

“What the love jihad theory does successfully is projecting demographic concerns, which are a politically powerful weapon,” said Rao, a retired professor.

In major cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai, couples are increasingly likely to choose a life partner irrespective of traditional norms such as arranged marriages and religion. 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.

“Loving someone is not a crime. It just happens. No one can plan it,” said Haider Khan, a friend of his. “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 speeding towards the scene on his motorcycle after news of the murder. Taking it, he said, his “brain stopped working.”

Mulla’s mutilated body lay on the ground, hands tightly tied behind his back, his head on the edge of the railway tracks and his severed legs scattered here and there.

It was Tinwal who called Sheikh that night with the news. The next morning the police called him to identify the body.

“My son made a terrible mistake of falling in love with a Hindu woman,” Shaikh said on a recent afternoon at his modest home in an overcrowded neighborhood, where electric cables are strewn across the streets. She paused, searching for the right words, before continuing, “Is that what it takes to love someone?”


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