In India, new laws prohibit future married couples from converting to their spouse’s religion. The idea is to stop forced conversions. But they have led to attacks on interfaith couples.
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In India, most marriages are still arranged by families belonging to the same religion or caste. But there are couples who fall in love, sometimes choosing partners of a different faith. Now the Hindu nationalist government of India is making it difficult for them. Lauren Frayer of NPR has been following an interfaith couple for several months in their struggle to get married.
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LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Oh, here they are. OK, they come out of the portal to the magistrate’s office. Oh, you can’t tell if they’re smiling or not because they’re wearing masks. Do you smile
MOHAMMED SHAMEEM: (non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: Mohammed Shameem was not smiling when he walked out of a Delhi courthouse last winter. It was one of many court dates that he and his fiancé believed to be on their wedding day, but it continued to be delayed. Shameem is a Muslim, the largest minority in India. And her fiancé, Simran Sagar, is from the Hindu majority. In today’s India, where Hindu conservatives reign, this religious difference complicates matters.
SHAMEEM: (Via interpreter) People look at us with hatred. Like, why is this good Hindu girl dating a Muslim? We come from a small town. It is conservative. People are talking. So we had to have dates secretly. Simran would cover his face with a scarf.
FRAYER: They met at a test preparation center in their hometown when Shameem was 21 and Simran was 18. And they dated in secret for almost four years. The plan was to graduate from college, get good jobs, and gain acceptance from their parents. But late last year, their state, Uttar Pradesh, became the first of many to pass laws against the so-called love jihad.
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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Big news – the state cabinet has approved a bill against jihad in love.
FRAYER: This is the term Hindu conservatives use to accuse Muslims of waging holy war by courting Hindu women. Laws prohibit future married couples from converting to their fiancé’s religion. The idea is to stop forced conversions. In practice, they have been used to arrest Muslim men. And Shameem was afraid.
SHAMEEM: (Via interpreter) I felt like the ground was moving under my feet. I thought I was losing Simran. None of us thought of converting religions, but I just knew that this love would fuel hatred and intolerance.
FRAYER: He was right. Within days, the police started breaking up marriages. Extremists have stepped up attacks against young couples. Simran packed up, told his mother she was going for a job interview, and ran off with Shameem.
SIMRAN SAGAR: (Via an interpreter) I turned off my phone and didn’t turn it back on until our bus reached Delhi. I got messages from my parents, who were crying, begging me to come back. They never thought I would do something like this. I was an obedient child. I was good at school. I did all my chores.
FRAYER: Now she finds herself in a secret home in the capital with Shameem, 200 miles from her family.
Was it an army barracks?
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FRAYER: Simran and Shameem’s first apartment has a cement floor, a hotplate, and a police guard outside. They spend their days doing the wedding papers. Indian law allows interfaith couples to get married, but it’s complicated. They must establish residence and observe a waiting period during which anyone is allowed to object. So if their families or neighbors oppose it …
ASIF IQBAL: They can’t get married there. They must therefore move to another state.
FRAYER: Asif Iqbal runs an NGO that helps Simran and Shameem and about a thousand other couples each year with security and paperwork issues. He says interfaith marriage is exactly what is happening as India grows, women join the workforce, and technology allows young people to connect and fall in love. But the jihad laws of love are a conservative reaction to all of this, Asif says. And they have led to the ostracism of couples.
IQBAL: Before, there was a kind of space for such couples. But after this act, the police oppose it. Even those who supported or helped them, friends, also stay away from marriage. They don’t want to be witnesses because they are afraid.
FRAYER: Some clerks refuse to perform their duties. Others divulge the names and addresses of couples to extremist groups. For Simran and Shameem, every date is a puzzle.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: This official keeps asking for more documents. Simran seems to be crying.
It shouldn’t be that hard, she says. Returning to their safe home after another setback, Simran sings a love song as she makes tea for her hopefully future husband.
SAGAR: (Singing in a language other than English).
FRAYER: And that’s how I left them last March – in limbo. Then the second wave of COVID in India hit, and everything stalled. Months later, we were able to reach Shameem by phone. Was he still in the safe house? Were they still fighting the bureaucracy?
SHAMEEM: (non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: He said so much has changed. He landed a job as an engineer. Simran is studying to become a police officer. And they are finally married. They even returned to their hometown. Their parents accepted their marriage. Now they are hoping the rest of society will, too.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi.
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