SRINAGAR, Kashmir – Manmeet Kour Bali had to defend her marriage in court.
Sikh by birth, Ms. Bali converted to Islam to marry a Muslim. Her parents objected to a marriage outside their community and filed a police report against her new husband.
In court last month, she testified that she married for love, not coercion, according to a copy of her statement reviewed by The New York Times. Days later, she ended up in New Delhi, the capital of India, married to a Sikh man.
Religious diversity has defined India for centuries, recognized and protected in the country’s Constitution. But interfaith unions remain rare, taboo, and increasingly illegal.
A series of new laws across India, in states ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, are trying to completely banish such unions.
While the rules are widely applied, right-wing supporters in the party describe such laws as necessary to curb “love jihad,” the idea of Muslim men marrying women of other faiths to spread Islam. Critics argue that such laws stoke anti-Muslim sentiment under a government that promotes a Hindu nationalist agenda.
Last year, lawmakers in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh passed legislation that makes religious conversion by marriage a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. So far, 162 people have been arrested under the new law, although few have been convicted.
“The government is making the decision that we will take tough measures to curb the love of jihad,” Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk and Uttar Pradesh’s top elected official, said shortly before the state’s Illegal Religious Conversion Ordinance was passed.
Four other states governed by the BJP have passed or introduced similar legislation.
In Kashmir, where Ms. Bali and Mr. Bhat lived, members of the Sikh community have questioned the legitimacy of the marriage. vocation It is “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 them of their agency.
“It is a fundamental right that women can marry of their own choosing,” said Renu Mishra, a lawyer and women’s rights activist in Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh.
“Generally, the government and police officers have the same patriarchy mentality,” he added. “They are not actually implementing the law, they are just implementing their way of thinking.”
Throughout the country, self-defense groups have created a vast network of local informants, who warn police about 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 boyfriends, according to Lucknow member Rakesh Verma.
“The root cause of this disease is the same everywhere,” Verma said. “They want to attract Hindu women and then change their religion.”
Responding to a clue, the Uttar Pradesh police interrupted a wedding ceremony in December. The couple were arrested and released the next day when they both proved they were Muslim, according to regional police, who blamed “antisocial elements” for spreading false rumors.
A Pew Research Center study He found that most Indians are opposed to anyone, but especially women, marrying outside of their religion. Most Indian marriages, four out of five, are arranged.
The backlash against interfaith marriages is so widespread that in 2018, the Supreme Court of India ordered state authorities to provide security and safe houses to those who marry against the will of their communities.
In its ruling, the court said outsiders “cannot create a situation in which such couples are placed in a hostile environment.”
The country’s constitutional right to privacy has also been interpreted to protect partners from pressure, harassment, and violence from families and religious communities.
Muhabit Khan, a Muslim, and Reema Singh, a Hindu, kept their courtship with their families a secret, meeting for years in dark alleys, abandoned houses and desolate cemeteries. Ms. Singh said that her father threatened to burn her alive if she stayed with Khan.
In 2019, they were married in a small ceremony with four guests, thinking that their families would eventually accept their decision. They never did, and the couple left the central Indian city of Bhopal to start a new life together in a new city.
“Hate has triumphed over love in India,” Khan said, “and it doesn’t look like it’s going to go away any time soon.”
In Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh, the BJP-led government passed a bill in March modeled on Uttar Pradesh law, tightening penalties for religious conversion through marriage and making it easier to obtain annulments. .
The government is not “averse to love,” said state Interior Minister Narottam Mishra, “but is against jihad.”
Members of the Sikh community in Kashmir are using Ms. Bali’s marriage to a Muslim man, Shahid Nazir Bhat, to push for a similar law in Jammu and Kashmir.
“We immediately need a law that prohibits interfaith marriage here,” said Jagmohan Singh Raina, a Srinagar-based Sikh activist. “It will help save our daughters, both Muslim and Sikh.”
At a mosque in northern Kashmir in early June, Ms. Bali, 19, and Mr. Bhat, 29, made Nikah, a commitment to follow Islamic law during their marriage, according to their marriage agreement. notarized.
Later, Ms. Bali returned to her parents’ home, where she said she was repeatedly beaten by the relationship.
“Now my family is torturing me. If something happens to me or my husband, I will commit suicide, “she said in a video posted on social media.
The day after the video was recorded, Ms. Bali left her home and met with Mr. Bhat.
Although a religious ceremony between people of the same faith, such as Mr. Bhat and Ms. Bali after their conversion, is recognized as legally valid, the couple had a civil ceremony and obtained a marriage license to strengthen your legal protections. The marriage agreement stated that the union “has been contracted by the parties against the desire, will and consent of their respective parents.
“Like thousands of other couples who do not share the same religious belief but respect each other’s faith, we thought we would create a little world of our own where love would triumph over all else,” said Bhat. “But that same religion became the reason for our separation.”
Ms. Bali’s father filed a police complaint against Mr. Bhat, accusing him of kidnapping his daughter and forcing her to convert.
On June 24, the couple surrendered to the police in Srinagar, where they were both detained.
In court, Ms. Bali recorded her testimony before a judicial magistrate, attesting that it was her willingness to convert to Islam and marry Mr. Bhat, according to her statement. Outside, her parents and dozens of Sikh protesters protested, demanding that she be returned.
It is unclear how the court ruled. The judicial magistrate rejected the requests for a transcript or an interview. His parents declined an interview request.
The day after the hearing, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, the head of the largest Sikh gurudwara in New Delhi, flew to Srinagar. He picked up Ms. Bali, with her parents, and helped organize her marriage to another man, a Sikh. After the ceremony, Sirsa flew with the couple to Delhi.
“It would be wrong to say that I convinced her,” Sirsa said in an interview. “If something adverse was happening, I should have said so.”
A written request for an interview with Ms. Bali was sent through Mr. Sirsa. Said she didn’t want to talk.
“He had a real breakdown,” he said, repeating the claims of Ms. Bali’s parents that their daughter was kidnapped and forced to marry Mr. Bhat.
Mr. Bhat was released from police custody four days after Ms. Bali left for Delhi.
At his home in Srinagar, he is fighting kidnapping charges. He said he was preparing a legal battle to get her back, but he feared the disapproval of the Sikh community would make their separation permanent.
“If she comes back and tells a judge that she is happy with that man, I will accept my fate,” he said.
Sameer Yasir and Iqbal Kirmani reported from Srinagar, Kashmir and Emily Schmall reported from New Delhi.