BELAGAVI, India (AP) – Arbaz Mulla’s love story began, as is often the case in novels, when he first saw the woman of his dreams, Sveta Kumbhar.
For nearly three years, their courtship was much like any other couple’s, and they made promises to each other to get married. But these secret vows will never be fulfilled.
The affair angered the relatives of Kumbhar, a Hindu, so much that they allegedly hired members of a violent Hindu nationalist group to kill the 24-year-old mullah, who was a Muslim.
According to the police, this is exactly what they did. On September 28, his bloody and dismembered body was found on a section of railway tracks.
While interfaith unions between Hindus and Muslims are rare in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s (BJP) ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and other Hindu nationalists have denounced what they call “love jihad.” A discredited conspiracy theory claims that allegedly predatory Muslim men cheat women to change their religion in order to establish dominance over the Hindu nation.
The “love jihad” issue has pitted the BJP against secular activists, who warn that it undermines constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and puts Muslims at the crossroads of Hindu nationalists, encouraged by a prime minister who has been largely silent about the rise in attacks on Muslims since he was first elected in 2014.
“This conspiracy theory demonizes the Muslim as another and creates sacrifice among Hindus and fears that India is about to become a Muslim country,” said Mohan Rao, a former social science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who has researched interfaith marriage.
Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a spokesman for the BJP, said the party does not in principle oppose interfaith marriages, which are legal, but suggested that fears of a “love jihad” were justified.
“Luring someone with financial means, any coercion or any motive to convert to their faith is unacceptable,” Agarwal said.
India’s National Investigation Agency and several court decisions have rejected the “love jihad” theory as unfounded. Census figures show that the country’s religious composition has remained stable since 1951, and India remains predominantly Hindu, with Muslims accounting for about 14% of its nearly 1.4 billion population.
Nonetheless, rights groups say there has been an increase in violence against interfaith couples by hard-line Hindu nationalists in recent years seeking to end the relationship. Hundreds of Muslim men were attacked and many married couples were forced into hiding. Some were killed.
It was against this backdrop of fear that the mullah and Kumbhar began dating at the end of 2018 in the city of Belagawi in the southern state of Karnataka.
The mullah’s mother, Nazima Sheikh, became worried. She was all too familiar with the frequent news of interfaith couples being targeted in Karnataka, which is controlled by Modi’s party.
“I was alarmed because I knew how this might end,” the Sheikh said in her humble home recently in the afternoon.
She tried to persuade the mullah to end the relationship, but he refused.
Meanwhile, the Kumbhara family was terrified. The Sheikh said that she asked them to bless the relationship, but she was told that “they will kill or be killed, but will not allow their daughter to marry my son.”
Soon, threatening calls began to come in to the mullahs. First they came from the Kumbhar family, then from members of the tough Hindu nationalist group Sri Ram Sena Hindustan, or Lord Rama’s Army in India. They demanded money and for Mulla to part with Kumbhar.
Kumbhar’s parents also tried to prevent her from seeing him, so, according to friends, the couple began meeting secretly in distant cities and in the fields in the countryside.
As the threats escalated, the 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 secretly – and her family was outraged when they found out about it. Soon he was summoned again to meet with the members of Sri Ram Sena Hindustan.
Investigators say that at the meeting, members of Sri Ram Sena Hindustan beat the mullah with clubs and beheaded him with a knife. They then allegedly put his body on the train tracks to give the impression that he died when the train hit him.
Ten people were arrested shortly thereafter, but formal charges have not yet been filed. These include Kumbhar’s parents, who, according to senior investigator Laxman Nimbarga, confessed to paying the killers.
The Associated Press was unable to speak to Kumbhar. After being in police custody for a short time, she now lives with relatives who refused to grant her access or even say where she is.
Sri Ram Sena Hindustan denied that its members had killed the mullah and said the group had been targeted for “work for the benefit of Hindus.”
Its leader, Ramakant Konduskar, who calls himself an infantryman in the battle for Hinduism, said that he is not against any religion, but people should marry within their own. He considers “love jihad” a threat to society.
Some jurisdictions ruled by Modi’s party have now begun to try to enforce this belief in law.
Last year, Uttar Pradesh lawmakers passed India’s first “love jihad” law, requiring couples of different religions to notify an official two months before marriage.
According to the law, an official must determine whether the conversion to another was under duress, which is a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Because the authorities may publicize couples’ names during the trial, hardliners sometimes intervene to pressure women’s families to press forced conversion charges.
To date, about 100 people have been arrested under the law, but only a few have been convicted. Three other states operated 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.
“Women are not assets,” said Renu Mishra, a lawyer and women’s rights activist based in Uttar Pradesh.
Several liberal activists, most of whom are Hindu, have created social and legal aid groups for interfaith couples and tagged their stories on social media.
But Belagavi, a relatively small town, lacks such resources and support. The state of Karnataka has seen an increase in anti-Muslim attacks of late, adding to fears among the population.
According to his relatives, in such an environment, the mullah felt that he had nowhere to turn.
“My son made a terrible mistake in loving a Hindu woman,” the Sheikh said.
She paused, choosing the right words before continuing: “Is this what you get when you love someone?”
Associated Press reporters Shonal Ganguly, Aijaz Rahi and Chonchui Ngashangwa contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’s coverage of religion receives support from the Lilly Foundation through The Conversation US. AP is solely responsible for this content.