BELAGAVI, India (AP) — Arbaz Mullah's love story began, as romances often do, when he first laid eyes on the woman of his dreams, Shweta Kumbhar.
Over nearly three years, their courtship in many ways resembled that of any other couple: They went on dates and to movies, snapped selfies, frequented public parks, made each other promises to get married. But those secret vows would never be fulfilled.
The romance so angered relatives of Kumbhar, a Hindu, that they allegedly hired members of a hard-line Hindu nationalist group to kill 24-year-old Mullah, who was Muslim.
They did exactly that, according to police. On Sept. 28, his bloodied and dismembered body was found on a stretch of railroad tracks.
While interfaith unions between Hindus and Muslims are rare in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's governing Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and other Hindu nationalists have forcefully decried what they call "love jihad." The discredited conspiracy theory holds that supposedly predatory Muslim men deceive women to coerce them into changing their religion, with the ultimate aim of establishing domination in the majority-Hindu nation.
The "love jihad" issue has pitted the BJP against secular activists who warn it undermines constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and puts Muslims in the crosshairs of hard-line Hindu nationalists, emboldened by a prime minister who has mostly stayed mum about rising attacks on Muslims since he was first elected in 2014.
"This conspiracy theory demonizes the Muslim as the other and creates victimhood and fears in the Hindus that India is going to be converted into a Muslim country," said Mohan Rao, a retired professor of social sciences at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University who has researched interfaith marriages. "It's absurd."
Gopal Krishna Agarwal, a BJP spokesman, said the party has no objection in principle to interfaith marriages, which are legal, but suggested that concerns about "love jihad" are valid.
"BJP is not completely against interfaith marriages. Basically, it is an individual choice," Agarwal said. "But to lure somebody through financial means, or some coercion, or some sort of motive to convert, that is not acceptable."
India's National Investigation Agency and some court rulings have rejected the "love jihad" theory as baseless. Census data show the country's religious mix has been stable since 1951, and India remains predominantly Hindu with Muslims making up about 14% of its nearly 1.4 billion people.
Nonetheless, rights groups say violence against interfaith couples has increased in recent years, perpetrated by hard-line Hindu nationalists out to stop such relationships. Hundreds of Muslim men have been assaulted, and many couples have been forced to go into hiding. Some have been killed.
It was against that backdrop of fear that Mullah and Kumbhar began dating in 2018 in the city of Belagavi, in the southern state of Karnataka.
They hit it off instantly. But soon their conservative neighborhood was abuzz with gossip about a romance between a Hindu woman and Muslim man.
Mullah's mother, Nazima Shaikh, was worried. She was all too familiar with the frequent news stories about interfaith couples being targeted in Karnataka, which is governed by Modi's party.
"I was unsettled because I knew how it could end," Shaikh said.
She tried to persuade Mullah to end the relationship, but he refused. Their love was too great, and he was determined.
Meanwhile Kumbhar's family was aghast. Shaikh said she appealed to them to give the relationship their blessing but was told that "they will kill or get killed but won't let their daughter marry my son."
Soon, Mullah began receiving threatening calls. First they came from Kumbhar's family, then from members of the hard-line Hindu nationalist group Sri Ram Sena Hindustan, or Lord Ram's Army in India. They demanded money and for Mullah to break up with Kumbhar.
Kumbhar's parents also sought to stop her from seeing him, so the couple began meeting clandestinely in faraway towns and in fields in the countryside, according to friends.
When the threats grew, 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 in secret — and her family was incensed when they found out. It wasn't long before he was summoned to meet again with the members of Sri Ram Sena Hindustan.
Late that night the phone rang at Shaikh's home.
"Life would never be the same," she said.
Investigators say that at the meeting, Sri Ram Sena Hindustan members bludgeoned Mullah with clubs and decapitated him using a knife. They then allegedly placed his body on the railroad tracks to try to make it look like he died when a train ran over him.
Ten people were soon arrested, though formal charges have yet to be brought. They include Kumbhar's parents, who according to senior investigator Laxman Nimbargi have confessed to paying the killers.
The Associated Press was unable to speak with Kumbhar. After a brief time in police custody, she is now staying with relatives who declined to make her available or even say where she is.
Sri Ram Sena Hindustan denied that its members killed Mullah and said the group is being targeted for "working for the benefit of Hindus."
Its leader, Ramakant Konduskar, who calls himself a foot soldier in the battle to save Hinduism, said he is not against any religion but people should marry within their own. He considers "love jihad" a threat to society.
"Our Hindu culture is thousands of years old," he said, "and we should preserve it and value it."
A 2020 Pew Research Center study found that roughly two-thirds of Hindus in India want to prevent their own from marrying outside the faith. An even larger share of Muslims, nearly 80%, said they favored preventing interreligious marriages.
Some jurisdictions governed by Modi's party have begun trying to codify that sentiment into law.
Last year lawmakers in Uttar Pradesh, a state headed by Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, passed India's first "love jihad" bill, requiring couples from different religions to provide two months' notice to an official before getting married. The legislation applies to all interfaith marriages but primarily affects Muslims as Islam requires a non-Muslim to convert in order to sanctify the union.
Under the law it's up to the official to determine whether a conversion came about through compulsion, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Because authorities can make couples' names public during the process, hard-liners have sometimes intervened to pressure women's families to bring charges of forced conversion.
Experts say proving the conversion is forced is not easy unless the woman acknowledges it because she invariably signs a statement before marriage saying she is willing.
So far nearly 100 people have been arrested under the law, though 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 in that they target Hindu women, portrayed as hapless victims of Muslim men.
"Women are not assets," said Renu Mishra, a lawyer and women's rights activist in Uttar Pradesh. "They can make their own decisions, and no one has the right to tell them whom to love and whom not to love."
Others worry the laws could further widen religious fault lines and accuse the BJP of stoking imaginary fears.
"What the love jihad theory does quite successfully is to introduce demographic anxieties, which is a politically potent weapon," said Rao, the retired professor.
Couples in major cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai are increasingly likely to eschew traditional norms such as arranged marriages and choose life partners irrespective of religion. Some liberal activists, most of them Hindus, have formed social and legal aid groups for interfaith couples and celebrate their stories on social media.
But in Belagavi, a relatively small city, such resources and support are lacking. Karnataka state has recently seen a rise in anti-Muslim attacks, exacerbating fears among the community.
In that environment, Mullah felt he had nowhere to turn, according to those close to him.
"Loving somebody is not a crime. It just happens. Nobody can plan it," said Hyder Khan, one of his friends. "But it is very difficult in these times to be a Muslim and to fall in love with someone from another religion."
Another friend, Muzaffar Tinwal, recalled speeding to the scene on his motorcycle after learning of the killing. Taking it in, he said, his "mind stopped working."
Mullah's decapitated body lay on the ground, hands lashed together tightly behind the back, his head was at the edge of the railroad tracks and his severed legs were scattered about.
It was Tinwal who phoned Shaikh with the news that night. The next morning, police called her to identify the body.
"My son made a terrible mistake of loving a Hindu woman," Shaikh said on a recent afternoon at her modest home in a congested neighborhood where webs of electrical wires crisscross the streets. She paused, searching for the right words, before continuing, "Is this what you get for loving someone?"
Associated Press journalists Shonal Ganguly, Aijaz Rahi and Chonchui Ngashangva contributed to this report.
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