Sarawa, India – A young Indian woman who had claimed in August that she was abducted, gang-raped, and forcefully converted to Islam for marriage has retracted her statement, saying she was under pressure from her family, according to the police.
On Monday, the 20-year-old girl appeared before senior police officials in the northern Indian city of Meerut and said she was forcefully confined by her parents who objected to her relationship with a Muslim youth named Kaleem Sheikh.
The girl identified as “S” – she cannot be named as per Indian law – said she feared for her life and sought police custody, in a blow to a “love jihad” campaign run by Hindu right-wing groups.
The police, on Tuesday, lodged a case of assault and the threat to murder against the girl’s parents.
A total of eight people, including Kaleem, were arrested after the girl’s family filed a police case in August, as right-wing groups protested against what they said was a case of “love jihad” – a Muslim conspiracy to convert Hindu girls.
See, my life is over. Wherever I live, I will always be taunted about this whole incident. They say that my body and womb is impure
Leaders from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliate groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Council) ran a campaign against what they said was a ploy used by Muslims to seduce Hindu girls, make them believe that they were in love, get married and convert them to Islam. Hindu right-wing groups have also claimed that Muslim boys are financially rewarded for the conversions.
Shanthakaka, the head of Rashtra Sevika Samiti, the women’s wing of the RSS, in an earlier interview said, “Muslim boys are encouraged to elope with our girls. The money they are paid to elope and marry a Hindu girl depends on the caste of the girl. The remuneration for Rajput girls is Rs 1 lakh ($1,635) and for Brahmin girls is Rs 2 lakhs ($3,270).”
The incident produced headlines calling it a “love jihad” campaign, further widening the Hindu-Muslim divide in the northern region of Uttar Pradesh state that witnessed deadly riots last year. More than 60 people were killed and thousands were displaced in the wake of violence in Muzaffarnagar district.
Al Jazeera met S on August 30 at her home where she confirmed her relationship with Kaleem, explained how he was wrongly framed and how she was facing immense harassment from her family.
We did not publish this conversation earlier fearing for the girl’s safety, which has been taken care of by the court now.
Teacher at Madrassa
S, a petite and confident girl, has a degree in humanities and she has supported her family financially since the age of 15 by tutoring students.
Last year, in the final year of her studies, she decided to take up a job as a teacher in Sultania madrassa, one of four Muslims religious schools in Sarawa, a village of 7,000 people almost equally divided between Hindus and Muslims. It is common in North Indian madrassas to have Hindu teachers or students. S earned a salary of Rs 1,200 ($20) for eight months before quitting in April to take her final exams.
Religion does not matter. He had no problem with me continuing with Hinduism and visiting temples after marriage.
S’ father worked as a roadside bag seller in New Delhi’s busy Lajpat Nagar market as there was little economic opportunity in the sugarcane belt nearly 80km from India’s capital.
Kaleem, 23, belonged to Uldhan village located 10km from Sarawa. S said she met Kaleem through a mutual friend.
“When I first met him, he told me that he liked me and wanted to be friends with me. It did bother me that he was a Muslim but he was so caring and appreciative of me that I started meeting him more,” S told Al Jazeera.
In a few months, Kaleem and S fell in love. “He asked me: ‘Don’t you think we should move ahead in life. Maybe get married?’ I agreed.”
But inter-religious marriages are still a taboo in the region.
“By now, it did not matter to me. He had even told me that I can continue to practise Hinduism and visit temples even after we get married,” S told Al Jazeera.
In July, she noticed she had unusual bleeding during her menstrual cycle. But when she consulted a doctor, she was told that she was pregnant.
“The doctor told me that I had an ectopic pregnancy and it had to be removed immediately. We could only afford a government hospital. Kaleem and I registered as husband and wife and the surgery was conducted.”
Kaleem, according to S, spent his own money on the surgery.
S’ pregnancy and subsequent abortion were not a unusual incident. The statistics collected by IIPS, a public health organisation, show that 21 percent of males and four percent of females in rural areas admitted to having had pre-marital sex.
She came home after the surgery on July 27, but her mother soon found sutures on her body and all hell broke loose.
When S could not bear the taunts at home, the only immediate solution was marriage to Kaleem. Before it could materialise, however, the family found out about her plans. It was not tough to garner support in the already charged Sarawa community.
Her father, with help from right-wing outfits such as Hindu Jagran Manch and Bajrang Dal went to the police. Among those falsely charged was the newly elected pradhan, Nawab, who has been in jail since then.
Earlier this year, Nawab changed the small gate of a local mosque to a bigger one which led to communal tensions in the village.
Since the case became public, several Hindu religious outfits have set up “fronts” like the RSS’ Hindu Behen Beti Bachao Sangarsh Samiti and the RSS’ student wing ABVP’s Meerut Bachao Manch to stop inter-religious, by-choice marriages which they have termed “love jihad”.
Lalit Maheshwari, the head of the VHP’s Muzaffarnagar unit, earlier told Al Jazeera: “Once BJP comes to power, they will push towards a law to stop inter-caste and inter-religious marriages.”
Kaleem, who has been in jail for the past two months, has not received enough support from his own community.
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When Al Jazeera tried to meet Kaleem, his lawyer, at the behest of his family, refused to facilitate it. A member of his family said: “We have nothing to do with him,” not because of the fictitious allegations of “love jihad”, but because of the Muslims’ prohibition on pre-marital sex and by-choice marriages.
In fact, a month after this case, Muzaffarnagar was rocked by a case of what some Muslim religious leaders have called “reverse love jihad” or the Hindu Dharma yuddha, when they alleged that a Hindu man had forced a Muslim girl to convert and elope with him.
S told Al Jazeera that she wanted “justice”.
“See, my life is over. Wherever I live, I will always be taunted about this whole incident. They say that my body and womb is impure now I want to have a face-to-face conversation with Kaleem to know what he wants. See, when you are in love with someone, you are equally responsible. If we are wrong, we both should be punished. Why should I let him suffer all his life for nothing?”
Fearful of “honour killing”, she said: “Had I not gone to the police, they would have killed me.”
She was insistent on her decision to marry Kaleem.
“Yes, I will. Religion does not matter. He had no problem with me continuing with Hinduism and visiting temples after marriage. Whose religion is bad? No one’s. It is us who have divided people as Hindus and Muslims but actually we all are one.”
Follow Neha Dixit on Twitter: @nehadixit123