Arbaz Mullah’s love story began, as romance often does when he first considered the woman of his dreams, Shweta Kumbhar.
Over almost three years, their courtship was in many ways similar to that of any other couple and they promised each other to marry. But those secret vows would never be fulfilled.
The romance angered relatives of Kumbhar, a Hindu, so much so that they allegedly hired members of a far-right Hindu nationalist group to assassinate 24-year-old Mullah, who was Muslim.
They did exactly that, according to police. On September 28, his bloodied and broken body was found on a stretch of track.
‘Love for jihad’
While interfaith unions between Hindus and Muslims is rare in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu nationalists have rejected what they call “love jihad”.
The discredited conspiracy theory believes that alleged predatory Muslim men are misleading women into forcing them to change their religion, with the aim of establishing domination in the Hindu majority nation.
The “love jihad” issue has tilted the BJP against secular activists who warn that it undermines constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and puts Muslims in the crosshairs of Hindu nationalists, encouraged by a prime minister who has mostly remained a mother about increasing attacks on Muslims since he was first elected in 2014.
“This conspiracy theory demonizes the Muslim as the other and creates victimization and fears among the Hindus that India will be transformed into a Muslim country,” said Mohan Rao, a retired professor of social sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University of New Delhi who did research. interfaith marriages.
Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a BJP spokesperson, said the party had in principle no objection to interfaith marriages, which are legal, but suggested that concerns about “love jihad” were valid.
“To lure someone by financial means, or some coercion, or some motive to repent, is not acceptable,” Agarwal said.
India’s national investigative agency and some court rulings have rejected the “love jihad” theory as unfounded. Census data show that the country’s religious mix has been stable since 1951, and India remains predominantly Hindu with Muslims making up about 14 percent of its nearly 1.4 billion people.
Nevertheless, say legal groups violence against interfaith couples has increased in recent years, committed by hardline Hindu nationalists who seek to stop such relations. Hundreds of Muslims were assaulted, and many couples were forced to hide. Some were killed.
“I knew how it could end”
It was against that backdrop of fear that Mullah and Kumbhar started dating late in 2018 in the city of Belagavi in the southern state of Karnataka.
Mullah’s mother, Nazima Shaikh, was worried. She was all too familiar with the regular news reports on interfaith couples being singled out in Karnataka, which is ruled by Modi’s party.
“I was upset because I knew how it could end,” Shaikh said at a recent afternoon at her modest home.
She tried to persuade Mullah to end the relationship, but he refused.
Meanwhile, Kumbhar’s family was upset. Shaikh said she appealed to them to give the relationship their blessing, but was told that “they will kill or be killed, but will not allow their daughter to marry my son”.
Soon Mullah started receiving threatening calls. First they came from Kumbhar’s family, then from members of the hardline Hindu nationalist group Sri Ram Sena Hindustan, or Lord Ram’s Army in India. They demanded money and that Mullah break up with Kumbhar.
Kumbhar’s parents also tried to stop her from seeing him, so the couple began meeting secretly in remote villages and in rural countryside, according to friends.
When the threats intensified, Mullah reluctantly agreed to end the relationship after being told it would mean he would no longer be bothered. But the couple continued to correspond in secret – and her family was incensed when they found out. It was not long before he was summoned to meet again with the members of Sri Ram Sena Hindustan.
Investigators say Sri Ram Sena beat Hindlahan members at the meeting with sticks and beheaded him with a knife. They then allegedly placed his body on the railroad tracks to try to make it look like he was dying when a train ran over him.
Ten people were soon arrested, though formal charges have yet to be brought. They include Kumbhar’s parents, who according to senior investigator Laxman Nimbargi admitted that they paid the killers.
The Associated Press news agency could not speak to Kumbhar. After a brief stint in police custody, she now stays with family members who have refused to make her available or even say where she is.
Sri Ram Sena Hindustan denied that its members killed Mullah and said the group came under fire because they “worked for the benefit of Hindus”.
His leader, Ramakant Konduskar, who calls himself a foot soldier in the fight to save Hinduism, said he is not against any religion but people should marry within their own. He regards “love jihad” as a threat to society.
Some jurisdictions controlled by Modi’s party have now begun to codify that sentiment in the law.
Last year, lawmakers in Uttar Pradesh passed India’s first “love jihad” wet, which requires couples of different religions to provide two months’ notice to an official before they get married.
According to the law, it is up to the official to determine whether a conversion was effected by coercion, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Because authorities can make couples’ names public during the trial, constipators sometimes intervene to pressure women’s families to bring charges of forced conversion.
So far, nearly 100 people have been arrested under the law, although only a few have been convicted. Three other states controlled by the BJP have introduced similar measures.
Critics say the bills violate the constitutional right to privacy. They also regard the laws as deeply patriarchal.
“Women are not assets,” said Renu Mishra, a lawyer and women’s rights activist in Uttar Pradesh.
Some liberal activists, most of them Hindus, set up social and legal aid groups for interfaith couples and celebrated their stories on social media.
But in Belagavi, a relatively small city, such resources and support are lacking. The state of Karnataka has recently seen an increase in anti-Muslim attacks, exacerbating fears among the community.
In that neighborhood, Mullah felt he had nowhere to turn, according to those close to him.
“My son made a terrible mistake in loving a Hindu woman,” Shaikh said.
She paused, searching for the right words, before continuing, “Is that what you get when you love someone?”