Muzaffarnagar, India – In June last year, authorities in the district of Muzaffarnagar in north India’s Uttar Pradesh state arrested a 22-year-old Muslim man on charges of fraud, sexual assault and forced religious conversion.
Officials claimed the complainant was Amandeep Kaur, a 24-year-old Sikh woman from the man’s neighbourhood.
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Constituting nearly 1.7 percent of its population, India is home to the largest number of Sikhs in the world. Despite repeated attempts by Hindu supremacist groups to club the community under a wider Hindu umbrella, the Sikhs maintain they are an independent religion.
“It was a case of love; they turned it into something called ‘love jihad’,” Kaur told Al Jazeera as she locked the doors of the small house she shared with her parents.
“Love jihad” is a term used by the Hindu political and religious right to describe an alleged phenomenon where Muslim men lure Hindu women into marrying them and converting to Islam. Hindu groups claim, without evidence, it is a conspiracy of an organised racket.
A year after her relationship with Usman Qureshi became a public spectacle, Kaur today fears unknown faces – the media or anybody offering to “help”. But she reiterates she is not a victim – Qureshi was her consensual partner for more than two years.
The couple’s ordeal began in October 2020 when the high court in Uttar Pradesh deemed religious conversions solely for marital purposes “unacceptable”.
Days later, Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-robed Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister of the state known for his anti-Muslim hate speech and policies, gave a peculiar ultimatum.
Addressing a crowd in Jaunpur district ahead of state assembly by-elections, Adityanath swore to protect the “honour and dignity of women”, specifically against the phenomenon of “love jihad … at any cost”.
“I warn those who conceal their identity and play with our sisters’ respect: if you don’t mend your ways, your ‘Ram Naam Satya’ [a Hindu funeral chant] journey shall begin,” he said.
A month after his speech, Adityanath’s government passed the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance.
The ordinance, which became law in February 2021, declared religious conversion “through marriage, deceit, coercion, or enticement” a non-bailable offence, with the accused facing up to 10 years in prison if found guilty.
In June 2021, Kaur’s father was summoned to a local police station. Unaware of the reason, the 63-year-old retired sugar mill worker abided.
“When I reached home from work, I realised my father had been in the police station for more than two hours. I knew something was not right. But it is only when I reached there myself that I realised that this was not about him at all. It was about me,” Kaur, the youngest of three siblings, told Al Jazeera.
When she reached the police station, she saw several men in black and saffron clothing sitting around her father. She was asked to wait.
The men surrounding her father claimed to be associated with Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the far-right Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP).
Apprehensive of the crowd, Kaur took out her mobile phone to consult her elder brother living in the national capital, New Delhi. But before she could dial, her phone was snatched away by one of the men.
The cacophony of voices simultaneously echoed sentiments of pity and rescue. The men said they wanted to avenge her forceful religious conversion from Amandeep Kaur to “Jannat Qureshi” by her former Muslim partner.
Our private lives were made political tools.
When asked about the targeting of Muslim men by Hindu right-wing groups in alleged “love jihad” cases, a New Delhi-based member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) who requested anonymity, told Al Jazeera: “I am not aware of any surveillance or involvement of Hindu organisations in such anti-conversion cases.”
The RSS, formed in 1925 along the lines of European Nazism, is the ideological mentor of the BJP and most other Hindu supremacist groups in India. The organisation counts Prime Minister Narendra Modi among millions of its lifetime members.
Kaur later came to know that a fake Facebook account was created with her new Muslim name and a photo of her and Qureshi.
“A friend forwarded that Facebook profile to me and I was baffled. The display photograph was one Usman and I had taken when we were in a relationship, and he would often lovingly call me ‘Jannat’ [heaven in Urdu]. But neither did we ever get married, nor was there any Jannat Qureshi,” she said.
Fearful of involving the police in the matter, she tried to find the source of the social media account through acquaintances and local cybercafes, but failed.
The Bajrang Dal men continued to hound Kaur to file a case against Qureshi. She repeatedly refused, saying there was no case to file. All she wanted was to contact her mother and escort her frail father home.
But the conversation soon turned aggressive and the concerns of the men had changed to threats. She was hurled with abuses, with the men saying neither she nor her father would be allowed to go home until she filed a complaint.
Apprehensive of their actions and seeing the condition of her father, she agreed to write and sign whatever it took to escape from there.
“I could see everything but not tears in my father’s eyes,” she said.
A police complaint against Qureshi – with whom she had separated and who was now married to a Muslim woman – was her sole saviour in that situation.
After nearly five hours of harassment and intimidation, Kaur was allowed to take her father home.
The bogey of ‘love jihad’ is divisive, built on fake news, and designed to foster hatred and suspicion between religious communities.
Days later, on June 27, 2021, Qureshi was arrested. According to the charge sheet filed by the police three months later, he had been accused of rape, breach of trust, cheating and forgery. Three of the five charges were non-bailable.
Two clauses from the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act were also imposed against him. A separate criminal case was filed against Qureshi’s elder brother, Nadeem.
“My life changed the next morning. From my neighbours to my co-workers – everyone looked at me differently, spoke to me differently,” said Kaur, an arts graduate who worked as an adviser at an insurance company.
The aftermath of a new “love jihad” case in the communally-sensitive town of Muzaffarnagar compelled her to stay home. She was advised to take a break from work.
Over the next six months, Kaur consulted several lawyers and travelled to the local court almost every two weeks. Forced to rely solely on her savings, she ran pillar to post to prove the cases against Qureshi and his brother were fabricated.
“Women like Amandeep Kaur are victims of a state and its norms which are both communal and patriarchal. Under the garb of protection, they are isolated and compelled to fight a battle to be heard,” journalist Pamela Philipose told Al Jazeera.
‘Private lives made political tools’
Within the first month of the implementation of the “love jihad” law in Uttar Pradesh in March 2021, police registered 16 cases involving as many as 86 people – 79 of them Muslims.
By November, the number swelled to 108 cases, naming 257 people. In several cases, the accused were not just the male partners of a Hindu woman, but also their family members and friends.
However, the state government is yet to furnish details on the complainants of the cases booked under the law.
“In a majority of cases under this anti-conversion law, the complainants have not been the women allegedly victimised, but their family members. Despite seeking details, the state has not revealed much data,” Akram Akhtar Choudhary, a human rights lawyer and co-founder of the collective, Archive Against Humanity, told Al Jazeera.
In September 2021, Choudhary filed a Right to Information application, seeking details of the cases registered under the law in 59 districts of Uttar Pradesh. Until now, only 22 districts have responded, Muzaffarnagar being one of them.
“We investigated and filed the charge sheet. We are not aware of the trial proceedings thereafter,” a police officer in Khatauli told Al Jazeera when asked about Qureshi’s case.
Kaur said the police had no witness in the case of her alleged conversion to Islam.
“The only proof the charge sheet had of my alleged religious conversion was an identification card in the name of Jannat Qureshi, daughter of Iqbal Qureshi. But that is not me,” she said.
“I never converted, let alone make a new identification document.”
However, unlike other criminal cases in India, the burden of proof does not lie on the prosecution under the “love jihad” law. The fundamental legal maxim – innocent until proven guilty – does not hold true here.
According to the law, proving innocence beyond a reasonable doubt is the responsibility of the person causing the alleged religious conversion and those “facilitating” it.
“The bogey of ‘love jihad’ is divisive, built on fake news, and designed to foster hatred and suspicion between religious communities,” researcher and rights activist Navsharan Singh told Al Jazeera.
After spending almost nine months in prison, Qureshi was granted bail in March this year.
“My consent, agency and basic rights were violated. I do not think I can overcome the trauma and harassment I was subjected to, and I cannot imagine how many other women like me are out there,” Kaur told Al Jazeera.
“Our private lives were made political tools,” she said, choking on her words.