It was dark and pouring with rain as Sameer Parishwadi ran along the train tracks. Up ahead, as the torches crossed the tracks, they illuminated a couple of feet.
A few feet away, cut cleanly from the body, was a head, one he recognized. It was Arbaaz Aftab Mullah, his cousin and childhood best friend.
Parishwadi turned his cousin’s body over and saw that his hands were tightly bound. “Then I knew this was 100% murder,” he said. “He had been tortured and then cruelly killed.”
Wiping his eyes, Parishwadi added: “He had not 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 murdered in September, allegedly for falling in love with a Hindu girl.
In India, interfaith marriages have always carried a social stigma and faced resistance from all religions as they often require religious conversion.
But in recent years, since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, such unions, particularly between Hindu women and Muslim men, have become a dangerous political focus due to a discredited but pervasive conspiracy known as “love jihad”. .
Those who believe in the theory claim that Muslim men are luring Hindu women into marriage under false pretenses, in order to convert them to Islam and ensure Muslim rule over Hindus in India.
According to India’s national investigative agency, there is no evidence of “love jihad”, nor is it reflected in the population data for India, where Hindus continue to make up around 80% and Muslims 14%.
But what was once a fringe extremist theory has now entered the political mainstream, and last year numerous BJP-ruled states, including Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, passed laws to crack down on the conversion of interfaith marriages, known colloquially as the “love of jihad” laws.
While the legislation covers all religions, over the past year it has predominantly been used to target minorities, as well as to encourage right-wing Hindu vigilante groups to stop interfaith marriage.
In Uttar Pradesh, Muslim men who have tried to marry consenting Hindu women have been violently attacked, forced into hiding or sent to jail. Of the 208 people detained under the new anti-conversion law between November 2020 and August 2021, all were Muslim. None have been convicted so far.
Asif Iqbal, who runs Dhanak For Humanity, an organization that helps interfaith couples facing hostility, said he had seen an increase in the number of people seeking help in the past year.
“They are afraid of society, they are afraid of their families, they are afraid that these fanatic groups will kill them and now they have the added fear of bogus police cases being filed,” he said.
In Bareilly, the area of Uttar Pradesh that has seen the highest number of love jihad arrests since the new law was passed, Ashu Agarwal, 52, a local leader of one of the most active right-wing Hindu groups, Vishva Hindu Parishad , affirmed that the families approached. “day after day” to help prevent interfaith marriages and cases of love jihad.
“For the last 50 years, we have known about the jihad of love, but we were unable to express ourselves and the issue was swept under the rug,” Agarwal said.
Agarwal pointed to a recent case of a so-called internationally funded “jihadi love syndicate” in Bareilly, run by a local Muslim, Syed Nizam, as proof of the problem.
But Nizam’s family said the case was fabricated and used to punish him for getting involved with an older Hindu woman. Nizam was allegedly kidnapped and beaten by the woman’s relatives, then handed over to the police, beaten in jail until he made a video confession that he was accepting money from abroad to rape and convert Hindu women.
Nizam has already been behind bars for more than five months. “He was the father of three children and was [not] involved in conversions, he wasn’t even very religious. This is a fake case, but we are Muslims, we can’t do anything,” said his mother, Latifan Begum.
Karnataka is one of the states also proposing to introduce a “love jihad” law, but right-wing Hindu groups have been active in the meantime. It was one such group, Shri Ram Sena Hindustan, that learned of the relationship between Mullah, a Muslim, and Shweta Kumbhar, a Hindu, in the city of Belgaum.
Mullah and Kumbhar lived across the street from each other and became romantically involved in 2019. She would bring boxes of food to his house and they would go on long walks together.
Although they knew their love was frowned upon, they felt no need to be discreet: their phones were full of selfies, and Mullah often talked about her with his friends.
Mullah’s mother, Nazima Shaikh, desperately tried to intervene. “I told him to stay away from the girl, that it was dangerous,” he said. When he refused, Shaikh moved the family to a new house. But even so, the couple organized secret meetings and spoke regularly on the phone.
But last year, Mullah began receiving threatening phone calls, allegedly from Kumbhar’s family and later from members of Shri Ram Sena Hindustan.
On September 26, two leaders of the group summoned Mullah and his mother to a meeting on a bridge, where they warned him to end the relationship and break all contact, or face the consequences. They smashed Mullah’s SIM card and deleted all 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 Kumbhar’s family paid two members of Hindu Shri Ram Sena Hindustan to kill their daughter’s Muslim lover.
They allegedly stabbed him to death and then transported Mullah’s body to the railway tracks in Khanapur, where he was dismembered 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 so they got caught up in this case,” he said.
Konduskar alleged that there was “a great conspiracy of conversions throughout the country” and said that while Mullah’s case was “tragic…everyone should love their own religion and not act against the religion of others.”
Shaikh said that he would fight for justice for his son until his last breath. “How are there such hard-hearted people in this world? He did no harm to anyone and yet they cut him to pieces,” he cried. “I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, the image of my son is always with me.”
Mohammad Sartaj Alam contributed to this report
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism