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India's New Laws Against 'Love Jihad' Give Hindu Conservatives Power To Halt Weddings

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In India, several states have outlawed brides or grooms from converting to their new spouse's religion. These new laws are backed by Hindu conservatives who accuse Muslim men of pressuring Hindu women to convert. The laws of complicated things for interfaith couples. Yesterday, we brought you the story of one couple's long legal battle to get married, today we bring you the story of the people trying to stop them. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from the Hindu heartland of northern India.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: 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.

(CROSSTALK)

FRAYER: To the Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu supremacist group that's been linked to attacks on minority Muslims. 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 explains. "And we pressure the police to halt the weddings."

Staff crowd around to show me cell cellphone of the couples they've broken up.

MISHRA: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: So this is in December - couple.

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.

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?

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)

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.

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. Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.