AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In India, most marriages are still arranged by families within the same religion or caste. But there are some couples who do fall in love, sometimes choosing partners from a different faith. Now, India's Hindu nationalist government is making it harder for them. NPR's Lauren Frayer has been following one interfaith couple for several months through their struggle to get married.
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LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Oh, here they are. OK, they're coming out of the gate of the magistrate's office. Oh, you can't tell if they're smiling or not 'cause they're wearing masks. Are you smiling?
MOHAMMED SHAMEEM: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: Mohammed Shameem was not smiling when he walked out of a Delhi courthouse last winter. It was one of several court dates he and his fiancé thought might be their wedding day, but it kept getting delayed. Shameem is Muslim, India's largest minority. And his fiancé, Simran Sagar, is from the Hindu majority. In today's India, where Hindu conservatives hold sway, that religious difference complicates things.
SHAMEEM: (Through interpreter) People look at us with hatred. Like, why is that good Hindu girl dating a Muslim? We are from a small town. It's conservative. People talk. So we used to have to go on dates secretly. Simran would cover her face with a scarf.
FRAYER: They met at a test prep center in their hometown when Shameem was 21 and Simran was 18. And they dated in secret for almost four years. The plan was to graduate college, get good jobs and win their parents' acceptance. But late last year, their state, Uttar Pradesh, became the first of several to pass laws against so-called love jihad.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Big breaking news - the state cabinet has approved a bill against love jihad.
FRAYER: That's the term Hindu conservatives use to accuse Muslims of waging holy war by wooing Hindu women. The laws prohibit a bride or groom from converting to his or her fiancé's religion. The idea is to stop forced conversions. In practice, they've been used to arrest Muslim men. And Shameem was scared.
SHAMEEM: (Through interpreter) I felt like the ground shifted beneath my feet. I thought I'd lose Simran. Neither of us was thinking of converting religions, but I just knew this love would fuel hatred and intolerance.
FRAYER: He was right. Within days, police started breaking up weddings. Extremists stepped up attacks on young couples. Simran packed a bag, told her mother she was going for a job interview and ran away with Shameem.
SIMRAN SAGAR: (Through interpreter) I switched off my phone and didn't turn it on again until our bus reached Delhi. I had messages from my parents, crying, begging me to come back. They never thought I'd do something like this. I was an obedient child. I was good at school. I did all my chores.
FRAYER: Now she finds herself in a secret safe house in the capital with Shameem, 200 miles away from her family.
Was this an army barracks?
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FRAYER: Simran and Shameem's first apartment together has a cement floor, a hot plate and a police guard outside. They spend their days doing marriage paperwork. Indian law does allow interfaith couples to marry, but it's complicated. They have to establish residency and observe a waiting period during which anyone is allowed to object. So if their families or neighbors are opposed...
ASIF IQBAL: They can't get married there. So they have to move to another state.
FRAYER: Asif Iqbal runs an NGO that's been helping Simran and Shameem and about a thousand other couples annually with safety issues and paperwork. He says interfaith marriage is just what happens as India develops, women join the workforce, and technology allows young people to connect and to fall in love. But the love jihad laws are a conservative backlash to all of that, Asif says. And they've led to couples being ostracized.
IQBAL: Before, there was some kind of space for such couples. But after this act, the police is against it. Even those who were supporting them or helping them, the friends, they are also keeping away from the marriage. They don't want to be witness because they're scared.
FRAYER: Some city clerks refuse to carry out their duties. Others leak couples' names and addresses to extremist groups. For Simran and Shameem, every appointment is a nail-biter.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: This official keeps coming out asking for more documents. Simran looks like she's going to cry.
It shouldn't be this hard, she says. Back in their safe house after yet another setback, Simran sings a love song as she makes tea for her hopefully soon-to-be husband.
SAGAR: (Singing in non-English language).
FRAYER: And that's how I left them this past March - in uncertainty. Then India's second COVID wave hit, and everything went into lockdown. Months later, we managed to reach Shameem by phone. Was he still in the safe house? Were they still battling bureaucracy?
SHAMEEM: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: He said so much has changed. He's landed an engineering job. Simran is studying to be a police officer. And they're finally married. They've even moved back to their hometown. Their parents have accepted their marriage. Now they're hoping the rest of society will, too.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.