This city of rising Muslim prosperity and periodic communal tension was ripe for trouble when, less than an hour away, Muzaffarnagar was swept up in riots last year. In August, allegations of a Hindu girl in Meerut region that she had been gangraped at a madarsa, amid the rising drumbeat of ‘love jihad’, brought tensions to boiling point.
However, it is also to this land of Mangal Pandey lore, textbook publishing and Omkara fame belong Sachin Pawar and Khadija, whose case is now cited in almost every court in the state by inter-religious couples seeking to stay together.
Sachin and Khadija fell in love more than nine years ago, when together in Class VIII in rural Meerut. To Sachin, marrying Khadija was the most natural thing after he had finished his engineering and she her political science graduation. They wed at an Arya Samaj Mandir, and Khadija took on a Hindu name.
Khadija’s angry parents cut off all contact with her, and went to court. In August 2012, the Allahabad High Court recognised Sachin and Khadija as a married couple but asked Sachin to deposit Rs 2.5 lakh in her account to ensure Khadija’s “security”. It also asked Khadija to record a statement under the IPC asserting that the marriage was voluntary.
In the meantime, following charges of kidnapping levelled by Khadija’s family against Sachin and his relatives, his father, a teacher in a government school, was suspended.
The couple went to the Supreme Court, objecting to Khadija having to record a statement regarding their relationship and Sachin needing to make a bank deposit. In a landmark judgment on August 2, 2013 — ‘Sachin Pawar and another vs the State of UP’ — the Supreme Court quashed the high court’s order and directed that Sachin and Khadija, who got married upon attaining majority, be allowed to live “peacefully” like any other married couple, without any need for security or statement.
Sachin’s father was later reinstated in his job.
Now in their 20s, Sachin and Khadija with their three-month-old daughter are settled in Punjab, far from Meerut and the prying questions that chased them there. He works in an IT company. Sachin occasionally goes to Meerut to meet his parents, but would rather not talk about his in-laws.
He doesn’t see going to the apex court as “bravery”. “It was necessary. We got no relief anywhere and were constantly on the run.”
Sachin has heard of ‘love jihad’, and realises that he and wife Khadija only narrowly escape the right-wing’s “definition” of it. Laughing, he adds that love is a matter of heart and a disapproving society gives it such labels to repress it.
Sudarshan is the main organiser of the Hindu Beti-Bahu Bachao Samiti in Meerut, running the campaign against ‘love jihad’ here. A VHP leader, he sees “no merit” in inter-faith marriages, which he terms ‘Loving Jihad’. His conviction isn’t shaken by Sachin-Khadija’s example, though the Muslim Khadjia changed her name to marry the Hindu Sachin. The VHP routinely waives off happy marriages such as theirs as an exception. Says Sudarshan, “We are opposed to low-class Muslim men running away with innocent Hindu girls and raping them.”
He adds, “There is nothing common in how we (Hindus and Muslims) live, eat and pray. Mostly it’s Muslim boys on motorcycles, who speak English and look smart but are unqualified and are either mechanics or in other lowly jobs, who slowly tempt our girls, eventually plan an elopement and then abandon them.”
The allegations of the 20-year-old Hindu teacher of a madrasa in Saraawa village of Kharkhoda in August fell neatly into that narrative. She claimed she had been gangraped at more than one madrasa and pressured to convert. While she failed to provide any proof, 10 local Muslims, including the Kharkhoda village pradhan, have now spent two months in jail.
Kharkhoda’s Hindus and Muslims have lived together for decades, and despite things being officially “normal” now, the divide has set in. The girl’s father runs a small general store and admits he has lost business. “Muslims don’t visit the store anymore.”
At the madrasa where the girl once taught Hindi and English to girls, wary principal Amiruddin says students have been dropping out. “Our strength has shrunk from 250 last year to just about 50,” he says.
While few link the ‘love jihad’ allegations to a conservative city’s discomfort with changing social mores and its women stepping out of homes, Meerut saw a much-publicised crackdown against couples not so long back. In 2007, in Company Bagh (Gandhi Bagh), one of the few places that allow couples an escape in the city, an enterprising police officer had taken it upon herself to launch ‘Operation Majnu’. She had personally picked up couples who were found together in the park and assaulted them for being “indecent”.
Now Company Bagh adheres to strict timings and police are deployed there through the day.
The Meerut region is also used to calls being issued routinely forbidding women from wearing jeans, seen as a symbol of modernity and “loose morals”.
At the same time, change has been seeping into Meerut, helped along by its proximity to Delhi, and not just reflected in the omnipresent women in jeans on the streets. While its sex ratio is not much better (at 886 per 1,000 far behind the national average of 940), both literacy rates (72.84 per cent in 2011) and wealth have been growing. A June 2011 report by US financial services firm Morgan Stanley, ‘A Guide to India’s Urbanisation’, ranked Meerut 5th on the “vibrancy” index, ahead of Delhi and Mumbai. The index took into account infrastructure, job opportunities, modern consumer services and a city’s ability to mobilise savings.
After a fairly difficult and communally charged 1980s and 1990s, spreading prosperity has spawned an emerging Muslim middle class, and consquently growing participation of the community in politics. Playing on old faultlines, that, in turn, has fuelled tension further.
Western UP has sent a record number of Muslims to the state Assembly, and most of the 63 Muslims elected to the House in 2012 were from here.
Astha Sharma, whose family is based near Meerut’s famous Lal Kurti area, did her schooling in the city. Having studied nanophysics in Delhi, she is set to join a job in the Netherlands. According to her, “People in Meerut have not changed much. They want trendy things and a better lifestyle, but their mentality has not changed. A marriage between the two communities is anathema.”
However, as Sharma points out, “Once younger people choose life partners on their own, they fight back.”
Paromita Vohra, who made a documentary on Operation Majnu, says it is much more than about women. “When people living in a society with no social mobility see any subordinate group — women, the poor, Muslims or Dalits — rise, they have to fight back as it is a signal that the world they knew is changing rapidly. They want to clamp down on the idea that this can be done and choices made,” Vohra says.
Asif Iqbal runs an organisation called Dhamak in Delhi along with his Hindu wife Ranu that actively promotes inter-faith marriages. “Most marriages we know of don’t involve change of faith,” Iqbal says. “The name change is done to get some acceptability with one set of parents and hardly has any meaning beyond that. With all this politics around a personal and social fact of change, it is very difficult for couples like these, especially in western UP, to even speak up.”
Indu Tomar, who works with schoolchildren and teenagers via NGO Sarokar, sees that “silence” every time she is out in Meerut. She is stuck by young women driving two-wheelers with faces fully covered — with a scarf and shades — making identification almost impossible. Tomar believes it’s only partly to guard themselves from the sun. “Things around women have changed as well as not changed. There is still a lot women cannot do,” says Tomar.
The VHP’s Sudarshan brushes all that under the carpet as he cites own figures to show the “trend” of ‘love jihad’, claiming at least “100-150 such cases” in the past five years in Meerut region. Asked for details of even one, Sudarshan mentions a case in Mawana in rural Meerut. Immediately, though, he backtracks. The girl who had turned complainant after eloping with a Muslim boy, Sudarshan confesses, had run away with him again.