SRINAGAR, Kashmir – Manmeet Kour Bali had to defend her marriage in court.
A Sikh by birth, Ms. Bali converted to Islam to marry a Muslim. Her parents opposed a marriage outside their community and filed a complaint with the police against her new husband.
In court last month, she testified that she married for love, not because she was forced into it, according to a copy of her statement reviewed by The New York Times. A few days later, she found herself in the Indian capital of New Delhi, 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 slew of new laws across India, in states ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, seek to ban such unions altogether.
While the rules apply broadly, right-wing supporters of the party describe the laws as necessary to curb âlove jihad,â the idea of ââMuslim men marrying women of other faiths to spread Islam. Critics argue that such laws stoke anti-Muslim sentiment under a government promoting a Hindu nationalist agenda.
Last year, lawmakers in northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh passed a law that makes religious conversion by marriage an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. So far 162 people have been arrested there under the new law, although few have been convicted.
“The government takes the decision to take severe measures to curb amorous jihad,” he added. 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 led by the BJP have passed or introduced similar legislation.
In Kashmir, where Ms Bali and Mr Bhat lived, members of the Sikh community challenged the legitimacy of the marriage, call it is “to love jihad”. They are pushing for similar anti-conversion rules.
While supporters of such laws say they are meant to protect vulnerable women from predatory men, experts say they rob women of their power.
âIt is a fundamental right that women can marry of their own choosing,â said Renu Mishra, a lawyer and women’s rights activist in Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh.
âIn general, the government and the police have the same patriarchal mindset,â she added. “In fact, they don’t enforce the law, they just enforce their mindset.”
Across the country, vigilante groups have created a vast network of local informants, who alert police to planned interfaith marriages.
One of the most important is Bajrang Dal, or the brigade of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. The group has filed dozens of police complaints against Muslim suitors or married couples, according to Lucknow member Rakesh Verma.
âThe root cause of this disease is the same everywhere,â Mr. Verma said. âThey want to attract Hindu women and then change their religion. “
Police in Uttar Pradesh responding to a tip interrupted a wedding ceremony in December. The couple were taken into custody and released the next day when both proved they were Muslims, according to regional police, who blamed “anti-social elements” for spreading false rumors.
A Pew research center study found that most Indians are averse to anyone, but especially women, marrying outside of their religion. The majority of Indian marriages – four out of five – are arranged.
The backlash against interfaith marriages is so widespread that in 2018 the Indian Supreme Court ordered state authorities to provide safety and safe havens to those who marry against the will of their community.
In its ruling, the court said that foreigners “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 as protecting couples from pressure, harassment and violence from families and religious communities.
Muhabit Khan, a Muslim, and Reema Singh, a Hindu, have kept their courtship a secret from their families, meeting for years in dark alleys, abandoned houses and desolate cemeteries. Ms Singh said her father threatened to burn her alive if she stayed with Mr Khan.
In 2019, they tied the knot in a small ceremony with four guests, believing their families would eventually come to terms with their decision. They never did and the couple left the central city of Bhopal in India to start a new life together in a new city.
âHate has triumphed over love in India,â Mr. Khan said, âand it doesn’t look like it’s going to go anywhere soon.â
In Bhopal, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh, the BJP-led government passed a bill in March inspired by Uttar Pradesh law, toughening penalties for religious conversion through marriage and making it easier obtaining cancellations.
The government is not “opposed to love,” said state interior minister Narottam Mishra, “but is against jihad.”
Members of the Kashmiri Sikh community are using Ms Bali’s marriage to a Muslim man, Shahid Nazir Bhat, to lobby for a similar law in Jammu and Kashmir.
“We immediately need a law banning interfaith marriages here,” said Jagmohan Singh Raina, a Sikh activist based in Srinagar. âIt 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, performed the Nikah, a pledge to obey Islamic law during their marriage, in accordance with their notarized marriage agreement.
Afterwards, Ms Bali returned to her parents’ home, where she said she had been repeatedly beaten because of their relationship.
âNow my family tortures me. If something happens to me or my husband, I kill myself, âshe said in a video posted on social media.
The day after the video was recorded, Ms. Bali left the house and was reunited with Mr. Bhat.
Even though a religious ceremony between people of the same faith – as Mr Bhat and Ms Bali were after their conversion – is recognized as legally valid, the couple had a civil ceremony and obtained a marriage license to strengthen their legal protections. . The marriage agreement stated that the union âwas entered into by the parties against the will, will and consent of their respective parents.
âLike thousands of other couples who don’t share the same religious belief but respect each other’s faith, we thought we would create our own little world where love would triumph over everything else,â Mr. Bhat. “But this very 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 police in Srinagar, where both were detained.
In court, Ms Bali recorded her testimony before a judicial magistrate, attesting that it was her desire to convert to Islam and marry Mr. Bhat, according to her statement. Outside, her parents and dozens of Sikh protesters protested, demanding that it be returned to them.
It is not known how the court ruled. The judicial magistrate refused requests for transcription or interview. Her parents refused an interview request.
The day after the hearing, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, the head of New Delhi’s largest Sikh gurudwara, flew to Srinagar. He went to pick up Ms. Bali, along with her parents, and helped organize her marriage to another man, a Sikh. After the ceremony, Mr. Sirsa flew with the couple to Delhi.
“It would be wrong to say that I convinced her,” Sirsa said in an interview. âIf something negative happened, she should have said so. “
A written request for an interview with Ms. Bali was sent through Mr. Sirsa. He said she didn’t want to talk.
“She had a real depression,” he said, repeating claims from Ms Bali’s parents that their daughter was kidnapped and forced to marry Mr Bhat.
Mr. Bhat was released from custody four days after Ms. 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 disapproval of the Sikh community would make their separation permanent.
“If she comes back and tells a judge that she is happy with this man, I will accept my fate,” he said.
Sameer Yasir and Iqbal Kirmani reported from Srinagar, Kashmir, and Emily Schmall reported from New Delhi.