Last September, after allegations from some families and Hindutva organisations that Muslim men had “trapped” their Hindu daughters in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur, the police set up a special investigation team to inquire into 14 cases of “love jihad” in the city.
In November, as Adityanath’s BJP government was preparing to bring its “love jihad” law, the SIT said it had and filed charges against the accused, including for kidnapping. In eight of these cases, the girls were reportedly minor. The SIT, however, clarified there was no foreign involvement or a “conspiracy angle”.
This “conspiracy angle” forms the basis for the Hindutva bogey of “love jihad”, that Muslim men seduce Hindu women with the express purpose of converting them to Islam. The Adityanath government’s law legitimises this conspiracy theory to target interfaith marriages. As the SIT’s findings in November did.
Newslaundry went to Kanpur to investigate the SIT’s claims.
Of the 11 cases that the SIT alleged were criminal matters, Newslaundry investigated seven. In all seven cases, the SIT’s claims of “forced conversion” and “coercion” turned out to be false.
In at least three of the other four cases, women told courts they wanted to stay with their Muslim partners.
Newslaundry Hindi in . In this story, Newslaundry investigates inaccuracies in two cases flagged by the SIT: Neha and Ashfaq, and Salman and Seema.
Neha and Ashfaq
“She would apply sindoor whenever it pleased her and she would go for afshan at other times,” said Razia Bano, 40, recalling the six months that Neha spent in her home. Sindoor is vermillion worn traditionally by married Hindu women, afshan is the sandal counterpart for married Muslim women.
Razia lives in Kanpur’s Chakeri, sharing a two-bedroom house with 10 family members, including her widowed sister, Nazia, and Nazia’s children Ashfaq, Fatima and Salim. Neha’s family lived five houses away. Her mother died when she was young so she lived with her grandmother and father, who works as a daily wage labourer.
Razia in her house.
A selfie of Ashfaq and Neha.
Ashfaq and Salim worked at a tailoring unit, stitching belts for police uniforms. Their father died when they were young, and Ashfaq had been working at the factory since he was 10. They would earn between Rs 100 and Rs 150 a day.
On February 5, 2020, Neha married Ashfaq, 21. Ashfaq’s family said she was 18 years old at the time. She had dropped out of school in Class 10. “They had been dating for four years,” said Salim. “They were boyfriend and girlfriend.”
Neha’s father would not say if he’d known about his daughter’s relationship with Ashfaq; Ashfaq’s family claimed the woman’s family were “not comfortable” with interfaith relationships. “I have watched her grow up,” Razia said, referring to Neha. “There were no restrictions from our side.”
They were married at the Kanpur district court in presence of Salim, Nazia and Ashfaq’s sister, Fatima. Neha’s family was represented by her aunt, Urmila Devi.
In lieu of a marriage certificate, the couple signed a notary affidavit, which declared, “Neha, aged 18 years, and Ashfaq, aged 21, are getting married of their own will.” It was attested by two witnesses, Urmila Devi and Nazia.
A notary affidavit is not a legal proof of marriage. However, Ashfaq and Neha did not want to wait a month to be able to register their marriage under the Special Marriage Act. The couple still do not have a marriage certificate.
Three days after the wedding, the couple went to Gurugram, Haryana. Neha’s brother Aakash, who worked in Bengaluru, had heard about the wedding and telephoned his sister with “threats”, Razia alleged. In Gurugram, Ashfaq’s cousin helped them find a qazi to perform nikah.
“It was a temporary nikah where a few kalimas were read out,” Salim explained. “No one else from our side was present.”
The couple returned to Kanpur in April and Neha moved into Razia’s house to live with her husband. Razia built them a room, with unplastered walls and a tin roof.
Neha’s family didn’t really object, Salim and Razia said, even though they were clearly unhappy with the union. Neha’s father would occasionally ask Razia how his daughter was doing. “I would tell him everything is fine,” Razia said. Otherwise, the only family member to intermittently visit Neha and Ashfaq was Urmila Devi.
Salim showed Newslaundry the selfies they had taken. In one, Neha is wearing a burqa while Ashfaq smiles next to her in a skull cap; in another, she is wearing a mangalsutra and he is seated next to her.
In September, their lives came crashing down.
Arrest and FIR
When Neha and Ashfaq got married, Aakash, 22, her only brother, was living in Bengaluru, where he worked as a labourer in a factory making slippers. In March, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus, he returned home.
Aakash claimed that he found out about Neha and Ashfaq only after he had returned. Salim said Aakash had known since February. He had issued threats to his sister and even tried to file an FIR in Bengaluru, unsuccessfully. That is, in fact, why the couple had gone to Gurugram for the nikah, Salim added.
In any case, Aakash was furious to learn that his sister had married a Muslim. “They were our neighbours and they broke our trust,” he told Newslaundry. “Today, it has happened to my sister. Tomorrow, it can happen to someone else.”
Did he think it was a case of “love jihad”? “They must have made her eat something in order to hold her captive,” Aakash replied.
On September 2, Aakash went to the Chakeri police station in Kanpur. Curiously, he had waited six months to do so. He refused to explain the delay to Newslaundry and then stopped responding to phone calls.
Another selfie of Ashfaq and Neha.
The room Razia built for Ashfaq and Neha.
In his complaint, Aakash claimed that Neha was 16, not 18, and that she had been “wrongfully confined” at Ashfaq’s house for six months, where she was forced to “undergo conversion” and was subjected to “verbal and physical abuse”. “There was pressure on her to get money from home, else he would give her talaq or would kill her,” the complaint said, referring to Ashfaq.
But was Neha really 16?
Aakash said his sister’s Aadhaar card and marksheet state her date of birth as January 1, 2004. Ashfaq’s family said Neha applied for a new Aadhaar card after getting married and it says she is over 18. Neither family, however, agreed to show the Aadhaar cards to Newslaundry.
Hadn’t his aunt Urmila Devi witnessed the notary affidavit that said Neha was 18 at the time of her marriage? His aunt was “illiterate”, Aakash replied, and had no idea what she was witnessing.
Newslaundry could not independently verify Neha’s age.
On September 2, hours after Aakash had filed his police complaint, an FIR was filed under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, with charges including kidnapping and sexual assault of a minor. Since Aakash said Neha was only 16, the FIR included charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act as well as under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act, since Neha is from the Gautam community, which is a Scheduled Caste.
The FIR formed part of the SIT’s investigation. Its report concluded that Ashfaq had “tried to lure Neha into a trap of love and she was coerced into conversion followed by nikah”.
Salim, however, pointed out that Neha had not converted, and that they never asked her to. “You can ask anyone in the mohalla,” he said. “She would wear a sari as well as a burqa on her own.”
The SIT hadn’t asked any member of Ashfaq’s family to record their statement.
On October 2, Ashfaq was arrested in Kanpur’s Lal Bangla while he was on his way back from work. The same day, Razia, Salim, Nazia, and his two uncles were detained and questioned. One of the uncles, Shamshuddin, told Newslaundry, “We were beaten badly up and subjected to electric shock.”
The police would not speak to Newslaundry about this allegation.
The case drew media attention, especially in light of the new “love jihad” law. Ashfaq’s family found it difficult to cope, telling Newslaundry they were “let down” by the local media, especially Hindi newspapers.
A story about Ashfaq and Neha in Amar Ujala.
“They all showed the girl in a good light while no one carried our version,” said Salim. He picked up a copy of Amar Ujala from last year and pointed at the headline, “Man behind religious conversion arrested.” Another news item in Amar Ujala said Ashfaq and his family had forced Neha to convert by “threatening her with a gun”. None of the papers bothered to carry statements from Ashfaq’s family.
In November, Nazia was arrested and charged with kidnapping and assault. She and Ashfaq are currently lodged in Kanpur’s Sarsaiya Ghat jail, awaiting trial. The cousin who had helped organise the nikah in Gurugram was arrested as well.
Neha was sent to her ancestral village in Fatehpur district. Her father refused to speak to Newslaundry.
To make matters worse for Ashfaq and Neha, local Bajrang Dal leaders got involved.
Amarnath, who refused to give his last name, has been associated with the extremist Hindu supremacist group in Kanpur since 2014. A textile engineer, he claimed to have quit his job a few years ago to work with the group full time.
Aakash had approached Amarnath for help to file an FIR. Amarnath obliged, even loaning him money each time he had to travel to the police station.
“If such an incident happens with someone’s sister, then one has to step in,” he told Newslaundry.
He believes there’s a pattern in “love jihad” cases in Kanpur. “They usually target girls from economically backward backgrounds, which makes it easy to lure them,” he said.
Salim claimed they got “threats” from Bajrang Dal members, some of whom had even accompanied the police when arrested Ashfaq. Amarnath denied this.
Salman and Seema
Nearly 20 km from Razia’s home lies Govind Nagar, a sprawling shanty town inhabited by hundreds of labourers. Most of them are migrants who came to Kanpur looking for work. For decades now, they have lived in one-room huts along a railway line.
Kucchi basti in Govind Nagar.
The FIR filed in the matter.
A police map showing Seema and Salman's houses.
On December 13, 2019, an FIR was filed at the Govind Nagar police station against one Salman, 18, on charges of kidnapping and raping a minor girl. The complaint was filed by a resident named Rama Devi, who claimed Salman had “lured” her daughter Seema and eloped with her.
The couple had been missing since December 5, Rama Devi said.
Bizarrely, Rama Devi’s police complaint said Seema was 19. The police case diary reiterates this: that Seema is 19. Yet, the FIR includes charges of “raping a minor”.
According to the case diary, a police informer in January 2020 tipped the Govind Nagar police off to Salman’s whereabouts. He and Seema had reportedly eloped to Punjab in December, but returned to Kanpur not long after. Salman was found and arrested on January 9.
This story is contradicted by Salman’s family, who told Newslaundry that the police had “harassed” them about Salman’s whereabouts, even though they did not know. When the couple returned from Punjab, Salman’s father said he took his son to the police station, where he was promptly arrested.
Salman was charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act. He has been in jail since last January. In September, the case was handed over to the SIT investigating the “love jihad” cases.
Seema was returned to her family, who married her off 15 days later to a Hindu.
All this happened despite the police complaint and the FIR acknowledging that Seema was not a minor.
Seema’s father, Naresh Kumar, is a construction worker. The family refused to speak with Newslaundry. Salman’s father, Rashid Ali, is a daily wage labourer at a food stall. The two families live barely 100 metres from each other.
Salman’s mother, Nagma, agreed to speak to us after much persuasion, and only in presence of her landlady. The previous tenants of her home left behind pictures of Hindu deities Durga and Kali which are still propped up on a shelf in a corner.
The chargesheet stating Seema's age as 19.
Salman's mother, Nagma.
Pictures of Hindu deities in Nagma and Rashid Ali's home.
“They were friends,” Nagma said, when asked if she had been aware of the couple’s relationship. She doesn’t know Seema’s age and said she isn’t even sure of Salman’s age. “He must be around 17 or 18,” she said. “Both of them eloped on their own and were together someplace in Punjab.”
Nagma said the family was “harassed” by the local police until Salman and Seema were found. A neighbour told Newslaundry the police would visit them everyday, demanding the family tell them where the couple were hiding. On December 23, 2019, tired of the harassment, Rashid wrote to chief minister Adityanath for help. There was no response.
Fuming at how the case had been handled, Rashid Ali said, “We produced our son before the police. Yet, they claim they took our son into custody from the railway line.”
With Salman in jail, the family is struggling to make ends meet. They haven’t been able to pay their monthly rent of Rs 1,000 for over two years and are worried over meeting Salman’s legal expenses.
“There are days when our stove burns only once a day,” Nagma said.
When asked if she had ever heard of “love jihad”, Nagma shook her head to say no. Her landlady, who was listening, laughed. “Love, what?” It was the first time she’d heard of it.
Nagma also said no one from the SIT had contacted the family.
The SIT’s report quoted Seema as saying she had gone with Salman “on her own” and that her parents would “sell her off” if she returned home. But it added, “Medical reports concluded that Seema’s age was 16, hence a chargesheet was filed in the case.”
So, a woman who her mother as well as the police say is 19 years old is only 16 according to the SIT.
Newslaundry asked inspector general Mohit Agarwal, the head of the SIT, about such discrepancies in its report, and on what basis it had “investigated” the cases to begin with?
He said: “Either the girls themselves or their parents approached us. So, when the SIT was constituted, there were a total of seven cases. Later on, more cases came up and the SIT investigated 14 cases.”
Was there proof of “love jihad” in any of the cases? “In 11 cases, it was found that some kind of cheating happened...We have investigated every possible angle and reached out to the victims as well as the accused, and neutral parties, during the course of our investigation.”
Agarwal did not answer specific questions about individual cases.
This is the sixth story in a series on the human cost of the Hindutva ecosystem’s ‘love jihad’ campaign. Read the other stories here.
This report is part of the NL Sena project which 109 of our readers have contributed to so far. It was made possible thanks to Mayank Garg, Rahul Kohli, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our new project to develop Newslaundry’s iOS and Android apps, and help keep news free and independent.