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A Hindu married a Muslim for love. Her parents called the police

Four other states ruled by the BJP have either passed or introduced similar legislation.

In Kashmir, where Bali and Bhat lived, members of the Sikh community have disputed the legitimacy of the marriage, calling it “love jihad”. They are pushing for similar anti-conversion rules.

While proponents of such laws say they are meant to protect vulnerable women from predatory men, experts say they strip women of their agency.

Shahid Nazir Bhat, a Muslim who married Manmeet Kour Bali and was accused by her Sikh parents of kidnapping her, at his home in Srinagar.

Shahid Nazir Bhat, a Muslim who married Manmeet Kour Bali and was accused by her Sikh parents of kidnapping her, at his home in Srinagar.Credit:Showkat Nanda/The New York Times

“It is a fundamental right that women can marry by their own choice,” said Renu Mishra, a lawyer and women’s rights activist in Lucknow, the Uttar Pradesh capital.

“Generally the government and the police officials have the same mindset of patriarchy,” she added. “Actually, they are not implementing the law, they are only implementing their mindset.”

Across the country, vigilante groups have created a vast network of local informers, who tip off the police to planned interfaith marriages.

One of the largest is Bajrang Dal, or the Brigade of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. The group has filed dozens of police complaints against Muslim suitors or grooms, according to Rakesh Verma, a member in Lucknow.

“The root cause of this disease is the same everywhere,” Verma said. “They want to lure Hindu women and then change their religion.”

Responding to a tip, police in Uttar Pradesh interrupted a wedding ceremony in December. The couple were taken into custody, and released the following day when both proved they were Muslim, according to regional police, who blamed “anti-social elements” for spreading false rumours.

A Pew Research Centre study found that most Indians were opposed to anyone, but particularly women, marrying outside their religion. The majority of Indian marriages — four out of five — are still arranged.

The backlash against interfaith marriages is so widespread that in 2018, the country’s Supreme Court ordered state authorities to provide security and safe houses to those who wed against the will of their communities.

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In its ruling, the court said outsiders “cannot create a situation whereby such couples are placed in a hostile environment.”

The constitutional right to privacy has also been interpreted to protect couples from pressure, harassment and violence from families and religious communities.

Muhabit Khan, a Muslim, and Reema Singh, a Hindu, kept their courtship secret from their families, meeting for years in dark alleyways, abandoned houses and desolate graveyards. Singh said her father threatened to burn her alive if she stayed with Khan.

In 2019, they married in a small ceremony with four guests, thinking their families would eventually accept their decision. They never did, and the couple left the central city of Bhopal to start a new life together in a new city.

Papers showing that Manmeet Kour Bali is legally married to Shahid Nazir Bhat and that she has willingly converted to Islam, in Srinagar.

Papers showing that Manmeet Kour Bali is legally married to Shahid Nazir Bhat and that she has willingly converted to Islam, in Srinagar.Credit:Showkat Nanda/The New York Times

“The hate has triumphed over love in India,” Khan said, “And it doesn’t seem it will go anywhere soon.”

In Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, the BJP-led government passed a bill in March modelled after the Uttar Pradesh law, stiffening penalties for religious conversion through marriage and making annulments easier to obtain.

The government is not “averse to love,” said the state’s home minister, Narottam Mishra, “but is against jihad.”

Members of Kashmir’s Sikh community are using Bali and Bhat’s case to press for a similar law in Jammu and Kashmir.

“We immediately need a law banning interfaith marriage here,” said Jagmohan Singh Raina, a Sikh activist based in Srinagar. “It will help save our daughters, both Muslims and Sikhs.”

Manmeet Kour Bali, right, with her second husband in a photo provided by Manjinder Singh Sirsa, head of the largest gurudwara, or Sikh temple, in New Delhi.

Manmeet Kour Bali, right, with her second husband in a photo provided by Manjinder Singh Sirsa, head of the largest gurudwara, or Sikh temple, in New Delhi.Credit:The New York Times

At a mosque in northern Kashmir in early June, Bali, 19, and Bhat, 29, performed Nikah, a commitment to follow Islamic law during their marriage, according to their notarised marriage agreement.

Afterward, Bali returned to her parents’ home, where she said she was repeatedly beaten over the relationship.

“Now my family is torturing me. If anything happens to me or to my husband, I will kill myself,” she said in a video posted to social media.

The day after she recorded the video, Bali left home and reunited with Bhat.

Even though a religious ceremony between people of the same faith — as Bhat and Bali were after her conversion — are recognised as legally valid, the couple had a civil ceremony and got a marriage licence to bolster their legal protections. The marriage agreement noted that the union “has been contracted by the parties against the wish, will and consent of their respective parents.

“Like thousands of other couples who don’t share the same religious belief but respect each other’s faith, we thought we will create a small world of our own where love will triumph over everything else,” Bhat said. “But that very religion became the reason of our separation.”

Bali’s father filed a police complaint against Bhat, accusing him of kidnapping his daughter and forcing her to convert.

On June 24, the couple turned themselves into the police in Srinagar, where both were detained.

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At the court, Bali recorded her testimony before a judicial magistrate, attesting that it was her will to convert to Islam and marry Bhat, according to her statement. Outside, her parents and dozens of Sikh protesters protested, demanding that she be returned to them.

It is unclear how the court ruled. The judicial magistrate declined requests for a transcript or an interview. Her parents declined an interview request.

The day after the hearing, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, the head of the largest Sikh gurdwara in New Delhi, flew to Srinagar. He picked up Bali, with her parents, and helped organise her marriage to another man, a Sikh. Following the ceremony, Sirsa flew with the couple to Delhi.

“It would be wrong to say that I convinced her,” Sirsa said. “If anything adverse was happening, she should have said.”

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A written request for an interview with Bali was sent via Sirsa. He said she did not want to talk.

“She had a real breakdown,” he said, repeating Bali’s parents’ claims that their daughter was kidnapped and forced to marry Bhat.

Bhat was released from police custody four days after Bali left for Delhi.

At his home in Srinagar, he is fighting the kidnapping charges. He said he was preparing a legal battle to win her back, but he feared the Sikh community’s disapproval would make their separation permanent.

“If she comes back and tells a judge she is happy with that man, I will accept my fate,” he said.

The New York Times

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