'More so, if it is their daughters wanting to marry someone of their own choosing.'
'Children are seen as property. That's why the problem is so messy.'
For young Indians wanting to marry outside their religion, expressing their right to love and live as they choose is becoming increasingly hazardous.
Amrita Singh reports.
Illustrations: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Shruthi Meledath tiptoes through life, leaving as little evidence of her existence as possible: No Facebook, Twitter or Instagram profile, not even LinkedIn.
The only place she is visible is in the display picture of her husband's WhatsApp account — a flash of kohl-rimmed brown eyes framed by perfectly arched eyebrows.
Meledath, a Hindu from Kerala's Kannur, is married to Anees Hameed, a Muslim from the same place.
So, what happens in India today when a Hindu woman falls in love with a Muslim man?
Meledath, a 24-year-old physics post-graduate, is on the run from prying eyes. Her romance with Hameed has made national news and forced the police and courts to intervene.
Flush with love, Meledath prepared to go about her day one June morning at her home in Haryana's Sonepat, where Hameed worked as a marketing executive with an export house. Then, her quiet life ended with a knock on the door.
Eight policemen in plainclothes stood outside. They were acting on a complaint filed by her parents in a lower court in Kerala against her husband.
They alleged that Hameed was an ISIS sympathiser who had married their daughter with the intention of converting her to Islam and taking her with him to fight the jihad in Afghanistan.
Meledath had indeed left her parents' home surreptitiously a month earlier, on the pretext of going to write an entrance exam in Delhi, after she had failed to convince them about Hameed.
A few days later, via a phone call, she told her parents that she had married Hameed under the Special Marriages Act.
"We thought we would live happily ever after," says Hameed, 26. Instead, chaos was to follow.
Meledath and Hameed had met in college and fallen in love, but kept their relationship secret from their parents.
Early on, the couple set the guardrails for their future path together. "You should continue to be a Hindu, and I will continue to be a Muslim," Hameed told her.
But when Meledath's father, a retired army man, found out, he went berserk. Hameed's family of Kannur-based rubber planters was more accommodating.
The lower court would later order that Meledath's 'custody' -- although she was 24 when she had married -- be given to her parents.
They, in turn, packed her off to a 'ghar wapsi' centre in Kerala that specialised in making Hindu girls forget about the non-Hindu boys -- Christian or Muslim -- they had fallen in love with.
As she tells it, Meledath was cut off from the outside world: No television, cell phone or newspapers.
Operating under the guise of a yoga institute, the conversion centre was a boot-camp run by former 'converts' themselves: Hindu men and women who took pride in having successfully weaned themselves off the insidious influence of their non-Hindu partners.
The view of the yoga centre, which functioned from a single-storey yellow building set in the centre of a sprawling walled complex on the outskirts of Kochi, was obscured by tall trees and few in the neighbourhood knew what happened inside.
CCTV cameras, metal detectors and sharp-eyed guards ensured no one escaped.
Inside, more than 40 women remained incarcerated in one room with limited resources. Of the three rooms in the building, one accommodated the men, another the women and the third doubled up as a reception-cum-counselling centre where new 'students' and their parents were received.
Often, the women would be woken up at 4 am with a bucket of water splashed across their faces, and the rest of the day would be spent cooking, cleaning bathrooms, yoga sessions and listening to lectures on Hinduism.
They were kicked and thrashed if they refused to comply or argued with caretakers about their views on religion, says Meledath.
Privacy was non-existent. "The latches were removed from the washrooms and someone knocked on the door or peeped through it to check on us every five minutes to ensure we didn't kill or hurt ourselves,"recalls Meledath.
Every day, the inmates had to spend hours being 'counselled'. "They would underline texts from the Bible or the Koran and misinterpret them to show how fallen their lot was," says Swetha Haridas, a doctor who was forced to spend a week at the centre after she fell in love with and married Rinto Thomas, a photographer, whom she had met while interning at a hospital in Kannur.
Whenever the women expressed a desire to go back to their husbands, they were kicked and slapped.
"'He will sell you to jihadis in Pakistan,' they would tell me," says Meledath.
Most of these women unwittingly followed their parents to the so-called yoga centre and then found themselves trapped once they reached there.
Haridas, 28, landed up at the centre at the end of an outing to a mall with her parents and her sister.
"My father said he wanted to check out a yoga centre nearby. But once we reached, we were made to sit in a large room with a group of people who began to talk to me about leaving my husband," she recalls.
"As they talked, my family members slipped out of the room one by one. When I said I wanted to leave as well, they told me I wasn't allowed to. When I started to shout for help, they cranked up the music, tied my hands and legs and began to thrash me."
After a few days of suffering, Haridas realised that the only way she could escape was by feigning agreement with the counsellors. (Meledath spent 48 days at the centre; she was released only after her husband secured a court order.)
"I promised to get Rinto into the fold of Hinduism if they let me leave, and they agreed," says Haridas.
Upon her release, the couple decided to approach the police. "My husband gave me the courage to file an FIR against the owner of the centre. Although I'm scared for my life, I want to protect others from undergoing the same torture that I underwent," she says.
While the police are investigating the case, the yoga centre has since been shut down following a Kerala high court order.
The stories of Meledath and Haridas bear resemblance to that of many others across the country.
Operating from secret locations in and around Delhi, the 12 helpline numbers of Love Commandos, a not-for-profit organisation that helps couples fight off pressure and intimidation from families, ring non-stop.
Sanjoy Sachdeva, chairman and founder of the NGO, interrupts a conversation midway. "This is a distress call," he says.
The caller is another woman, an income tax officer from Uttar Pradesh posted in South India. She says her family has held her hostage because she is in love with a fellow officer from a lower caste.
She has reached out to Sachdeva because her parents are not letting her leave the house and are trying to get her to quit her job.
Sachdeva feels he needs to send one of his volunteers to check on her and rope in the police, if necessary.
Couples of various combinations flood the Love Commandos' helpline year round. Some are on the run from their families and the police while awaiting legal help at one of the 400 shelters the NGO has across the country.
But nothing baffles Sachdeva more than what's come to be called 'love jihad'.
"Indians have a problem with love. Period," he declares, "More so, if it is their daughters wanting to marry someone of their own choosing."
"Children are seen as property. That's why the problem is so messy," he says.
Although the provision for guardianship in marriage was omitted by the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Act, 1976, the mindset hasn't changed.
"Take invitation cards. Instead of the bride and the groom inviting you to their wedding, it is usually parents who invite you to their son's or daughter's weddings in India," says Sachdeva.
Haridas, who now lives with her husband in Thrissur, cannot agree more.
"Everyone says if my parents had agreed to my marriage, none of these problems would have surfaced," she says.
Then she adds listlessly, "They do not want to keep in touch with me anymore."
The rules of love are becoming ever more complicated for men, too.
In September, a Muslim man in Aligarh was yanked out of a restaurant and accused of 'love jihad' after he was found having tea with a Hindu woman.
Elsewhere, what should have been a routine rite of passage for young adults is being debated in courts.
The Web site of Dhanak, another Delhi-based NGO that helps couples navigate the choppy waters of interfaith marriages, is filled with pleas for help from Muslim men living in UP and beyond.
In love with a Hindu girl, Saqib, who is studying to become a dentist, has poured his heart out on the portal, hoping someone would be sympathetic to his cause.
'We are both in UP, but we can't do anything in this state,' he writes.
Adding to the charged atmosphere are right-wing propaganda Websites such as the 'Struggle for Hindu Existence'.
The editor of the online portal, Upananda Brahmachari, has dedicated his life to fighting 'love jihad'.
To his mind, the threat is real. "We rescue about 500 girls every month, but thrice that number goes unnoticed," he says.
He makes his case through a curated list of newspaper clippings screaming torture by Muslim men of their Hindu wives.
"There is a well-oiled nexus to trap innocent Hindu girls into marriage and then kill or torture them if they refuse to embrace Islam," claims Brahmachari.
Struggle for Hindu Existence, too, has a team of volunteers that provides legal support to parents once a case of 'love jihad' comes to light.
Most of the time, he says, he gets to know about these cases through his volunteers or through someone in the girl's family.
Like the Love Commandos, this organisation has shelters across the country where 'rescued' women are sent if they perceive that their lives are in danger.
"There has never been a good time for love in India," says senior advocate Vrinda Grover. "But today hate has many more proponents."
Love Commandos' Sachdeva and his team have come to the aid of some 43,000 couples since 2010. But now, he says, his task has become more difficult amid conspiracy theories about Muslim men trying to entice Hindu women.
The fear psychosis surrounding 'love jihad' has coloured everyone's judgement, including the police's.
"Even when a woman has recorded her statement, their first instinct is to send her to her parents," Sachdeva says.
Brahmachari has his own dissatisfactions with police action. He says, "In non-BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)-ruled states such as West Bengal, the police are reluctant to file a case of love jihad, making it difficult for us to rescue the girls."
With love and marriage becoming increasingly politicised, it is becoming ever more difficult for inter-faith couples to get the support of their families.
"There is a sharp polarisation and vested political interest in reinforcing polarisation. As a result, it is difficult to get societal support for inter-religious marriages. It affects the working of the police and other law-enforcing agencies involved," says Grover.
One of the 'love jihad' stories currently playing out in the Supreme Court and the outcome of which could have a bearing on a woman's right to marry someone of her own choosing is that of Hadiya and Shafin Jahan.
Last May, in a habeas corpus verdict, a Kerala court annulled Hadiya's five-month-old marriage, on the grounds that the Hindu-born woman who converted to Islam had disobeyed her parents.
Hadiya's husband Shafin has challenged the divorce ruling in the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court allowed Hadiya to return to college in November, it is still to rule on her marriage.
"We are accustomed to looking at women as being looked after," Grover says. "The idea of the right of women to decide for themselves has yet to be taken seriously by the jurisprudence of this country."
As the country comes to grips with its many ideas of love and marriage, the Kerala high court in October, in a habeas corpus plea filed by Hameed, ruled in favour of Meledath and reunited her with her husband. But her problems are far from over.
The allegations of 'love jihad' and ISIS links have spooked Hameed's employers and they are not keen to have him back.
"My savings are running out; I need a job soon," he says.