It was dark and pelting down with rain as Sameer Parishwadi ran along the railway tracks. Up ahead, as torches darted across the tracks, they shone on to a pair of feet.
A few metres away, sliced clean from the body, was a head, one that he recognised. It was Arbaaz Aftab Mullah, his cousin and best friend from childhood.
Parishwadi turned over his cousin’s body and saw that his hands were tightly bound. “I knew then that this was 100% a 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, yet he paid the ultimate price.”
Mullah, a 24-year-old Muslim man 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. Photograph: The Guardian
In India, interfaith marriages have always carried a social stigma and faced resistance by all faiths 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 flashpoint due to a discredited but pervasive conspiracy theory known as “love jihad”.
Those who believe in the theory claim that Muslim men are luring Hindu women into marriage on false pretences, in order to convert them to Islam and ensure Muslim dominance over the Hindus in India.
According to India’s national investigation agency, there is no evidence for “love jihad”, nor is it reflected in India’s population data, where Hindus continue to make up about 80% and Muslims 14%.
But what was once a fringe extremist theory has now been brought into the political mainstream and, last year, numerous BJP-ruled states, including Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, passed legislation to clamp down on conversion for interfaith marriages – laws colloquially known as the “love jihad” laws.
While the legislation covers all religions, over the past year it has predominately been used to target minorities as well as emboldening rightwing Hindu vigilante groups to halt interfaith marriage.
In Uttar Pradesh, Muslim men who have attempted to marry consenting Hindu women have been violently attacked, forced into hiding or sent to jail. 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.
Tensions between Hindus and Muslims can run high. Photograph: The Guardian
Asif Iqbal, who runs Dhanak For Humanity, an organisation that assists interfaith couples facing hostility, said he had seen a rise in those seeking help in the past year.
“They fear society, they fear their families, they fear they might get killed by these fanatic groups and now they have the added fear of false police cases being filed,” he said.
In Bareilly, the area of Uttar Pradesh which has had 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 rightwing Hindu groups, Vishva Hindu Parishad, claimed families approached them “day in, day out” for help in preventing interfaith marriages and love jihad cases.
“For the last 50 years, we have known about love jihad but we weren’t able to express ourselves and the issue was swept under the carpet,” said Agarwal.
Agarwal pointed to a recent case of an alleged internationally funded “love jihad syndicate” in Bareilly, led by a local Muslim man, Syed Nizam, as proof of the problem.
But Nizam’s family said the case was trumped up and being 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.
Students take part in a protest against love jihad in front of Academy of Fine Art in Kolkata on Valentine’s Day last year. Photograph: Dipa Chakraborty/Pacific Press/Rex/Shutterstock
Nizam has now been behind bars for more than five months. “He was a father of three and was [not] involved in conversions, he wasn’t even very religious. This is a false case but we are Muslim, we can’t do anything,” said his mother, Latifan Begum.
Karnataka is one of the states also proposing to bring in a “love jihad” law, but, in the interim, rightwing Hindu groups have been active themselves. It was one such group, Shri Ram Sena Hindustan, that got wind of the relationship between Mullah, a Muslim, and Shweta Kumbhar, a Hindu, in the city of Belgaum.
Mullah and Kumbhar lived opposite each other and became romantically involved in 2019. She would bring tiffin boxes of food over to his house, and they would go on long walks together.
Though they knew their love was frowned upon, they felt no need to be discreet: their phones were filled with selfies of each other and Mullah would talk of her often to his friends.
Mullah’s mother, Nazima Shaikh, tried desperately to intervene. “I told him to stay away from the girl, that it was dangerous,” she said. When he refused, Shaikh moved the family to a new house. But still the couple organised secret meetings and spoke regularly on the phone.
But last year, Mullah began to get threatening phone calls, allegedly from Kumbhar’s family and then from members of Shri Ram Sena Hindustan.
On 26 September, 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 sever all contact, or face the consequences. They broke Mullah’s sim card and deleted all photos of Kumbhar from his phone.
Two days later, while his mother was away travelling, he tried to call Kumbhar again. According to police, that night two members of 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 transported Mullah’s body to the railway tracks in Khanapur, where they dismembered it 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 organisation in the killing. “Those who were arrested were doing great work for Hindutva [Hindu nationalism] and that’s how they got trapped in this case,” he said.
Konduskar alleged there was “big conspiracy of conversions happening across 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 she would fight for justice for her son until her last breath. “How are there such hard-hearted people in this world? He didn’t do any wrong to anyone and yet they cut him into pieces,” she wept. “I cannot sleep, I cannot eat, my son’s image is always with me.”
Mohammad Sartaj Alam contributed reporting