‘They cut him to pieces’: India’s ‘love jihad’ conspiracy theory turns deadly | India

It was dark and pouring rain as Sameer Parishwadi ran along the train tracks. Ahead of them, as torches crossed the tracks, they shone to a pair of feet.

A few yards away, severed from the body, was a head, one he recognized. It was Arbaaz Aftab Mullah, his childhood cousin and best friend.

Parishwadi turned over his cousin’s body and saw that his hands were tightly bound. “I knew then it was 100% murder,” he said. “He had been tortured and then cruelly killed.”

Wiping his eyes, Parishwadi added, “He hadn’t committed a crime by loving someone, but he paid the ultimate price.”

Mullah, a 24-year-old Muslim from the southern Indian state of Karnataka, was killed in September – allegedly for falling in love with a Hindu girl.

Sameer Parishwadi at the place where he found the body of his cousin Arbaaz Aftab Mullah. Photography: The Guardian

In India, interfaith marriages have always been stigmatized by society and met with resistance from all faiths, as they often require religious conversion.

But, in recent years, since the rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), these unions – especially between Hindu women and Muslim men – have become a dangerous political hotbed due to a discredited but ubiquitous conspiracy known under the name of “love jihad”. .

Those who believe in the theory claim that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriage under false pretenses, in order to convert them to Islam and secure Muslim rule over Hindus in India.

India’s national investigative agency says there is no evidence of ‘love jihad’, nor is it reflected in the demographics of India, where Hindus continue to make up around 80% and Muslims 14%.

But what was once fringe extremist theory has now made its way into the political mainstream, and last year many BJP-ruled states, including Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, passed legislation aimed at cracking down on the conversion for interfaith marriages – laws colloquially known as the “love jihad” laws.

Although the legislation covers all religions, over the past year it has mainly been used to target minorities as well as to encourage right-wing Hindu vigilante groups to end interfaith marriage.

In Uttar Pradesh, Muslim men who have attempted to marry consenting Hindu women have been violently assaulted, forced into hiding or sent to prison. Of the 208 people arrested under the new anti-conversion law between November 2020 and August 2021, all were Muslim. None have been convicted so far.

Hindu gesturing to a muslim
Tensions between Hindus and Muslims can be high. Photography: The Guardian

Asif Iqbal, who runs Dhanak For Humanity, an organization that helps interfaith couples facing hostility, said he has seen an increase in the number of people seeking help over the past year.

“They fear society, they fear their families, they fear being killed by these fanatical groups and now they have the added fear of false police records being filed,” he said.

In Bareilly, the region of Uttar Pradesh that has seen the highest number of arrests for love jihad since the new law was passed, Ashu Agarwal, 52, a local leader of one of the Hindu groups in most active right, Vishva Hindu Parishad, said families had been approached. the “day after day” to help prevent interfaith marriages and cases of love jihad.

“For the past 50 years, we have heard about love jihad, but we could not speak out and the issue was swept under the rug,” Agarwal said.

Agarwal cited the recent case of an alleged internationally funded “jihad of love” syndicate in Bareilly, led by a local Muslim, Syed Nizam, as evidence of the problem.

But Nizam’s family said the affair was fabricated and was used to punish him for having an affair with an older Hindu woman. Nizam was allegedly kidnapped and beaten by the woman’s relatives, then handed over to the police, beaten in prison until he made a video confession that he accepted money from abroad to rape and convert Hindu women.

Students take part in a protest against love jihad outside the Academy of Fine Arts in Kolkata
Students take part in a protest against love jihad outside the Academy of Fine Arts in Calcutta on Valentine’s Day last year. Photography: Dipa Chakraborty/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Nizam has now been behind bars for over five months. “He was the father of three children and [not] involved in conversions, he wasn’t even very religious. It’s a fake deal but we are Muslims, we can’t do anything,” said his mother, Latifan Begum.

Karnataka is one of the states that is also proposing to introduce a “love jihad” law, but in the meantime right-wing Hindu groups have themselves been active. It was one such group, Shri Ram Sena Hindustan, that learned of the relationship between the mullah, a Muslim, and Shweta Kumbhar, a Hindu, in the town of Belgaum.

Mullah and Kumbhar lived opposite each other and fell in love in 2019. She would bring boxes of tiffin food to his house and they would take long walks together.

Although they knew their love was frowned upon, they felt no need to be discreet: their phones were filled with selfies of each other and the mullah often told his friends about her.

The mullah’s mother, Nazima Shaikh, desperately tried to intervene. “I told him to stay away from the girl, it was dangerous,” she said. When he refused, Shaikh moved the family to a new house. But the couple still held secret meetings and spoke regularly on the phone.

But last year, the mullah started receiving threatening phone calls, allegedly from Kumbhar’s family and then members of Shri Ram Sena Hindustan.

On September 26, two leaders of the group summoned the mullah and his mother to a meeting on a bridge, where they warned him to end the relationship and break off all contact, or face the consequences. They broke the mullah’s SIM card and deleted all of Kumbhar’s photos from his phone.

Two days later, while his mother was away, he tried to call Kumbhar again. According to police, that night two members of the Hindu Shri Ram Sena Hindustan were paid by Kumbhar’s family to murder their daughter’s Muslim lover.

They allegedly stabbed him to death, then carried the mullah’s body onto the railway tracks in Khanapur, where they dismembered him to make it look like he had jumped in front of a train.

Ten people have been charged, including at least two known members of Shri Ram Sena Hindustan and Kumbhar’s parents.

Ramakant Konduskar, the founder and leader of Shri Ram Sena Hindustan, denied any involvement of his organization in the murder. “Those who were arrested were doing a great job for Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] and that’s how they got trapped in this case,” he said.

Konduskar alleged that there was “a great conspiracy of conversions across the country”, and said that while the mullah’s case was “tragic… everyone should love their own religion and not act against the religion of others “.

Shaikh said she will fight for justice for her son until her last breath. “How are there such tough people in this world? He didn’t hurt anyone and yet they cut him to pieces,” she cried. “I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, my son’s image is always with me.”

Mohammad Sartaj Alam contributed reporting

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