Arbaz Mullah’s love story began, as romances often do when he laid eyes on the woman of his dreams, Shweta Kumbhar.
For nearly three years, their dating was in many ways like any other couple and they vowed to marry. But these secret wishes would never be kept.
The romance so angered those close to Kumbhar, a Hindu, that they allegedly hired members of a far-right Hindu nationalist group to kill a 24-year-old mullah, who was a Muslim.
This is exactly what they did, according to police. On September 28, his bloodied and dismembered body was found on a section of railroad tracks.
While interfaith unions between Hindus and Muslims are rare in India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Hindu nationalists have denounced what they call the âlove jihadâ.
The discredited conspiracy theory argues that supposedly predatory Muslim men deceive women into changing their religion, in an effort to establish dominance in the predominantly Hindu nation.
The ‘jihad of love’ issue has pitted the BJP against secular activists who have warned that it undermines constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and puts Muslims in the sights of Hindu nationalists, emboldened by a Prime Minister. minister who has mostly remained silent on the growing attacks on Muslims since he was first elected in 2014.
“This conspiracy theory demonizes the Muslim as another and creates victimization among Hindus and fears that India will be converted into a Muslim country,” said Mohan Rao, retired social science professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi which has researched interfaith marriages.
Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a spokesperson for the BJP, said the party did not object in principle to interfaith marriages, which are legal, but suggested that concerns about âlove jihadâ are valid.
“Attracting someone by financial means, or by some form of coercion, or some sort of motive for conversion, is not acceptable,” Agarwal said.
India’s National Investigation Agency and some court rulings have dismissed the âjihad of loveâ theory as baseless. Census data shows the country’s religious mix has been stable since 1951 and India remains predominantly Hindu, with Muslims making up around 14% of its nearly 1.4 billion people.
Nonetheless, human rights groups say violence against interfaith couples has increased in recent years, perpetrated by extremist Hindu nationalists seeking to end such relationships. Hundreds of Muslim men were assaulted and many couples were forced into hiding. Some have been killed.
“I knew how it could end”
It was against this backdrop of fear that the mullah and Kumbhar began dating at the end of 2018 in the town of Belagavi, in the southern state of Karnataka.
The mullah’s mother, Nazima Shaikh, was worried. She was all too familiar with the frequent reporting of distinguished interfaith couples in Karnataka, which is ruled by Modi’s party.
âI was confused because I knew how this could end,â Shaikh said on a recent afternoon in his modest home.
She tried to persuade the mullah to end the relationship, but he refused.
Meanwhile, Kumbhar’s family were in dismay. Shaikh said she asked them to bless the relationship, but was told that “they would kill or be killed but would not let their daughter marry my son.”
Soon the mullah began to receive 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 the mullah to break with Kumbhar.
Kumbhar’s parents also sought to prevent him from seeing him, so the couple began to meet clandestinely in distant towns and in fields in the countryside, according to friends.
When threats escalated, the mullah reluctantly agreed to end the relationship after learning it would mean he would no longer be bothered. But the couple continued to correspond in secret – and his family were furious 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 that during the meeting, members of Sri Ram Sena Hindustan clubbed the mullah with clubs and beheaded him with a knife. They then allegedly placed his body on the tracks in an attempt to make it look like he was dead when a train crushed him.
Ten people were quickly arrested, although formal charges have yet to be laid. Among them are Kumbhar’s parents, who, according to lead investigator Laxman Nimbargi, confessed to paying the killers.
The Associated Press news agency was unable to speak with Kumbhar. After a brief police custody, she is now staying with relatives who have refused to make her available or even to say where she is.
Sri Ram Sena Hindustan denied that its members killed the mullah and said the group was under fire for “working for the benefit of the Hindus”.
Its leader, Ramakant Konduskar, who calls himself an infantryman in the battle to save Hinduism, said he was not against any religion but that people should marry in theirs. He sees the “jihad of love” as a threat to society.
Some jurisdictions governed by Modi’s party have now started to try to codify this sentiment into law.
Last year, Uttar Pradesh lawmakers passed India’s first “jihad of love” law, requiring couples of different faiths to give an official two months’ notice before marrying.
By law, it is up to the official to determine whether a conversion has occurred by duress, a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Because authorities may make couples’ names public during the process, hard-line supporters have sometimes intervened to pressure the families of the women to file forced conversion complaints.
So far, nearly 100 people have been arrested under the law, although only a few have been convicted. Three other states governed by the BJP have introduced similar measures.
Critics say the bills violate the constitutional right to privacy. They also view the laws as deeply patriarchal.
âWomen are not assets,â said Renu Mishra, lawyer and women’s rights activist in Uttar Pradesh.
Some liberal activists, mostly Hindus, have formed social and legal aid groups for interfaith couples and are celebrating their stories on social media.
But in Belagavi, a relatively small town, these resources and support are lacking. The state of Karnataka has recently seen an increase in anti-Muslim attacks, heightening fears within the community.
In this environment, the mullah felt he had nowhere to turn, according to his relatives.
âMy son made a terrible mistake in loving a Hindu woman,â Shaikh said.
She paused, searching for the right words, before continuing, “Is that what you get by loving someone?”