MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Mohammed Shameem and Simran Sagar live in India, and they've been waiting to get married for years.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Oh, here they are. OK. They're coming out of the gate of the magistrate's office.
KELLY: NPR correspondent Lauren Frayer met them last winter when they thought their special day had finally come.
FRAYER: Oh, you can't tell if they're smiling or not because they're wearing masks. Are you smiling?
MOHAMMED SHAMEEM: (Non-English language spoken).
KELLY: Shameem was not smiling as he walked out of a Delhi courthouse last winter because the wedding didn't happen. You see, Shameem is Muslim, and his fiancee, Simran, is Hindu.
SHAMEEM: (Through interpreter) People look at us with hatred. Like, why is that good Hindu girl dating a Muslim?
KELLY: The couple met at a test prep center in their hometown. Shameem was 21, and Simran was 18.
SHAMEEM: (Through interpreter) 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.
KELLY: They dated in secret for four years. The plan was to graduate college, get good jobs and then win their parents' acceptance. It was a solid plan, until...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Big breaking news - the state cabinet has approved a bill against love jihad.
KELLY: Love jihad - that is the term Hindu conservatives use to accuse Muslims of forcing Hindu women to convert to Islam. Love jihad laws have been passed in several Indian states. They prohibit a bride or groom from converting to his or her fiance's religion. The idea is to stop forced conversions.
SHAMEEM: (Through interpreter) I felt like the ground shifted beneath my feet.
KELLY: Days after Shameem and Simran's state Uttar Pradesh passed the law, police started to break up weddings. At times, Muslim men were even arrested. Shameem was scared.
SHAMEEM: (Through interpreter) I thought I'd lose Simran. Neither of us was thinking of converting religions. But I just knew this law would fuel hatred and intolerance.
KELLY: So they packed their bags, and they ran.
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 and begging me to come back. They never thought I'd do something like this.
KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - in a country where arranged marriages are the norm, any love marriage can be controversial. But for couples of different faiths, those marriages can mean becoming outcasts or worse.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Tuesday, September 14.
It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Let's get back to Mohammed Shameem and Simran Sagar. They fled 200 miles from their hometown in Uttar Pradesh after the love jihad law was passed in their state. The couple's first home together was a safe house in Delhi, a cement room with a hot plate in an old army barracks run by the local government to protect interfaith couples.
FRAYER: Was this an army barracks?
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)
KELLY: A police officer guarded the couple's apartment while the two of them spent their days doing marriage paperwork. Now, India does allow interfaith couples to marry, but they've got to get past a couple of hurdles - establish residency. Then there's a waiting period. And during that time, anyone is allowed to object. So if their families or their neighbors don't approve of the marriage...
ASIF IQBAL: They can't get married there. So they have to move to another state.
KELLY: Asif Iqbal runs an NGO that is helping Simran and Shameem and about a thousand other couples annually with safety issues and paperwork. Iqbal says interfaith marriage is just what happens as India develops and women join the workforce. Technology allows young people to connect and fall in love.
IQBAL: Before, there was some kind of space for such couples. But after this act, the policy is against it. Even those who are supporting them or helping them, the friends, they are also keeping away from the marriage. They don't want to be witness because they are scared.
KELLY: Because of the love jihad laws, some city clerks refuse to carry out their duties. Some will even leak couple's names and addresses to extremist groups. Shameem and Simran just want to get married. Simran says it shouldn't be this hard.
SAGAR: (Singing in non-English language).
(Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's beautiful. You have a good voice. You're going to be a singing policewoman.
KELLY: This is Simran singing a love song as she makes tea for her hopefully soon-to-be husband. That was back in March. Six months later, a lot has changed.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: Shameem landed an engineering job, and Simran is studying to be a police officer. And, yes, they are finally married. No longer living in a safe house, the couple has moved back to their hometown, where their parents accept their marriage. While this couple was able to work things out, people in India are still trying to prevent interfaith marriages from taking place. NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer has been following this story. We're going to let her take it from here.
FRAYER: K.D. Sharma's 6-year-old son plays in the leafy street outside his house. Strolling the quiet streets, Sharma explains why he chose this suburb to raise his family.
K D SHARMA: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: "There's no traffic here. It's safe. It's a mixed neighborhood." He means Hindu families and Muslim families. "But we all get along," he says. That is until last fall, when his Hindu neighbors invited him to their daughter's wedding to a Muslim man.
SHARMA: (Through interpreter) Why can't the guy find a Muslim wife? I personally think interfaith marriage is wrong. It just leads to problems. Of course, I had no grounds on which to object to this particular wedding until they passed that law.
FRAYER: A week before the wedding, his state, Uttar Pradesh, passed a law against so-called love jihad. That's a term Hindu conservatives use when Muslim men marry Hindu women and convert them to Islam. Sharma wasn't sure whether his neighbor's wedding involved any religious conversion, but just in case, he says he felt a civic duty to alert the police.
SHARMA: (Through interpreter) At first, the police refused to do anything. They said the bride and groom were adults. If their families were OK with the marriage, why are you objecting? I told them, I just want to make sure the law is followed. It's for the welfare of my community.
FRAYER: Unsatisfied with the police's initial response, Sharma took his complaint elsewhere.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hello.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).
FRAYER: To the Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu supremacist group that's been linked to attacks on minority Muslims.
PANKAJ TIWARI: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: Hinduism is ancient, the Mahasabha's local leader, Pankaj Tiwari, told me in an interview in his office, which is lined with pictures of Hindu idols. "Originally, everyone in India was Hindu," he said. "But over the centuries, people converted to other religions, and now we have to return to our roots," he said. He says his group keeps a national database of interfaith couples to try to stop them from marrying.
MUKESH MANI MISHRA: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: "We have informants in every neighborhood," another official, Mukesh Mani Mishra (ph), explains. "And we pressure the police to halt the weddings." Staff crowd around to show me cellphone photos of the couples they've broken up.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Like this. (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: So this is in December - couple.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: They used slurs to refer to Muslims. This is a fringe group, but its members say they feel emboldened with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalists in power. So when Sharma complained to them about an interfaith wedding in his neighborhood, the Mahasabha used their influence and say they forced police to act. Police arrived at the bride's house hours before the wedding last December and halted the preparations. NPR confirmed this with the bride's family, who were too scared to go on tape. Months later, the couple remained unmarried. The bride's father told us her life is ruined.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: At the local police station, I asked officials why they halted this marriage. The families deny wrongdoing. Did police find evidence to the contrary?
Who was the inspector who responded that day?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: But I was told that every officer involved that day has since been transferred. No one would talk. Police deny cooperating with any extremist group.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)
FRAYER: Back in Sharma's mixed neighborhood, bells ring at a Hindu temple not far from a mosque. Sharma strolls past the house of the neighbors whose wedding he broke up.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
SHARMA: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: "When we pass in the street, we no longer say hello," Sharma explains. But he has no regrets. He's been getting more and more involved in Hindu nationalist politics. And he says lots of other neighbors - Hindus - congratulated him for what he did.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: That's NPR's India correspondent Lauren Frayer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KELLY: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.