Persecuted and vilified, inter-faith and inter-caste couples in India have no place to call home. They have little choice, but to seek shelter at the ‘safe houses’ that too are far from safe. They are the invisible — doomed to live their lives in hiding
UPDATED: 03 FEB 2022 10:06 PM
Farooq was jostling for a seat on the crowded bus he rode to work every day when he saw Pooja for the first time. She got on the bus from a village just a few steps away from his. Farooq had never seen her before but something about her lopsided green dupatta caught his eye. Pooja’s college was 20 kilometres from her village in the Hanumangarh district of Rajasthan. Farooq worked in a bank that was just 5 kilometres away. That day, Farooq rode the bus for 35 kilometres. By the time he reached work, he knew he was in love.
“He followed me like that for days, but I never noticed him until the day he confessed to my friend that he liked me,” says Pooja. Farooq and Pooja have been together since 2017. They got married in 2021. But unlike other couples, they did not post photos of their wedding on Instagram or invite their family or friends to it. “We are on the run. Our families were opposed to our relationship because I am Muslim and she is Hindu,” Farooq tells me. “Both of us chose each other over our families.”
After running away from their homes in Rajasthan in November 2019, Farooq and Pooja reached Delhi. With the help of an NGO and several petitions to local police and the High Court, they managed to get married after which they were provided court-mandated protected accommodation at a “safe house” in Delhi. Guarded by armed personnel, the “safe house,” run by the social welfare department on Kingsway Road, provides a temporary haven to “runaway couples” like Farooq and Pooja, who do not have the permission to love, despite living in a free count
At first, their families tried to plead for them to come back. Then, they tried to get them both arrested. “They falsely accused Farooq and me of stealing Rs 11 lakh, 3 kg gold and silver as well as the documents of a fixed deposit,” Pooja says, adding that she could never have imagined that her family could turn against her this way, all because she wanted to marry the person of her choice. “We are the first Hindu-Muslim couple to come out of our district. You can imagine the kind of stigma,” Farooq says.
Inter-faith and inter-caste relationships are among the most persecuted when it comes to runaway couples. But according to activists who help such couples find a safe space and eventually marry and settle down, most families in India have a problem with “love marriage”. But with the rise in popularity of ‘love jihad’ laws in states like MP and UP, activist Asif Iqbal says that interfaith couples across India have started getting jittery. “It is because most inter-faith couples have no place to go. In states where love jihad laws exist, couples have no option but to contact organisations like ours and come to Delhi to get married here,” Asif explains.
Once in Delhi, couples often have to manoeuvre complicated legal battles and paperwork to secure protected accommodation and eventually get married, either under the Special Marriages Act or religious acts. Asif, the co-founder of Dhanak, which has helped hundreds of couples get married via legal channels since 2005, says that he usually encouraged couples to opt for the Special Marriages Act. “It’s more reliable. But it also has its loopholes,” he adds.
Shirish Solanki from Vadodara, Gujarat, currently lives at an undisclosed location in Vadodara. Like many young men, Shirish has wanted to take his wife on a honeymoon to a beachside location. When they could finally marry, however, Shirish and his wife Anisha ended up not in a hotel room but in a “safe house”. They had met in college. Anisha is Muslim and neither wanted the other to convert. When Shirish and Anisha’s parents found out about the relationship, they tried everything from emotional manipulation to physical harm. The two managed to get themselves registered to marry under the Special Marriage Act at a local court. But during the 30-day mandatory notice period, the circular for their wedding, which was stuck on the walls of the public court, was photographed and shared on some Hindutva WhatsApp groups. The photos reached their families.
“We had to leave immediately,” Shirish recalls, adding that once the photos went viral, their life was in danger. He and Anisha had read about families of Muslim men who eloped with Hindu women being targeted by Hindu mobs. “In Gujarat, Hindu-Muslim subject is sensitive,” Shirish adds. It took nearly two years for them to get married but it finally happened on April 9, 2021. “At first, we were sent to the safe house in Delhi. Then we were transferred to another secure location in Gujarat. None of our families know where we are,” Shirish says.
Shirish, however, admits that it would be nice to not have the police tail them all the time. The couple is currently guarded by four court-appointed police constables who come at inter-changeable hours. “One of them is a bore. One of them is friendly. They follow my wife when she takes the car out to get groceries or essentials. They even follow me to work. Imagine showing up with police protection everywhere,” Shirish says. He is nevertheless thankful for the protection he has received, though he adds that such services need to be available across the state. “The “safe house” that they have given us here is not really an established institution. It’s just a building with no specific provisions. Imagine the number of couples who might not even know that such a place exists,” Shirish says.
Shirish and Anisha live with constant police protection
Despite the Supreme Court’s 2018 directions to states in response to the Shakti Vahini PIL, asking districts across states and UTs to set up shelter homes for runaway or distressed couples, authorities and laws on the matter remain lax. At present, only three states officially have safe houses for runaway inter-caste or interfaith couples. These are spread across Haryana, Punjab and Delhi. Delhi is the only place with a dedicated ‘special cell’ for such cases.
Last year, the Supreme Court asked Punjab and Haryana to ramp up the number of safe houses across districts as well as in Chandigarh in the face of rising petitions by couples seeking asylum. “We get about 3-4 cases of runaway couples every day,” says Rohtak DSP Dr Ravinder Kumar. “Some are inter-caste, some are inter-faith, while some others are inter-gotra. Some are sent by the District Magistrate; others come via the local district SPs and Mahila Police SHOs. Rohtak SHO Inspector Paromilla, who is in charge of investigating and preventing crimes against women in the area, tells Outlook that there are four couples in the Rohtak safe house at present. Once the couple is sent to the safe house, they are produced in the office of the DM, who then sends them to court. Then, as per the decisions of the court, mediations are carried out with the families of the victims. Once the court as well the couple is sure of their safety, they are set free. In case the court or authorities sense a danger to the woman, she is sent to a “Nari Niketan”.
However, past incidents have proved that such measures don’t always work. In 2018, when I had visited the safe house in Rohtak, a staff building with chrome yellow walls and dithered cots that accommodates star-crossed couples, I had learnt of an 18-year-old girl named Mamta, a Jat girl from Rohtak who had married a Dalit boy. Mamta and her husband lived in the safe house before she was sent to Nari Niketan in Karnal. However, the woman was shot dead on her way to the district court for the hearing of her case. In his 2021 book titled Killings for Honour: A Culture of Silence, Puneet Kaur Grewal outlines how women are the biggest victims of honour killings.
Despite attempts to increase provisions for the safety of inter-caste couples, honour killings continue unabated in Haryana. In October 2021, a 16-year-old girl in Gannaur village was poisoned by her parents for allegedly being in a relationship with a boy from another caste. But while couples in Haryana have the option to turn to the state-run safe houses or approach police in Delhi, states like Maharashtra where inter-caste marriages are equally unacceptable, provide no respite to couples wanting to marry outside of their caste. “I belong to an OBC caste while my husband Ashish is an SC from the Dhangar community,” Mansi Deokate from Maharashtra’s Baramati district, tells Outlook over the phone. Mansi had known Ashis Deokate since 2013. One day, she put up an Instagram post about Ashish. A relative spotted the post and sent a screenshot to her parents. “Both our families are deeply casteist. When they found out about us last year, they made me captive in my own house. They just gave me food and water through the cat flap. I was like a prisoner in my own home,” Mansi recalls. She decided to run away from her house in the middle of the night.
“We were caught in seven days,” Ashish Deokate says. The couple were sent back to their homes. The girl’s wedding was also fixed. But she managed to run a second time. This time, the couple decided to move to another district. Ashish, who works with a Pune-based campaign called ‘Right To Love’, lived with the campaign founder Abhijit Kamble for a few days before managing to get a flat on rent. “We live like criminals. Not even our neighbours know our true identity. We don’t think we can ever get in touch with our parents,” Ashish sighs. While working with ‘Right To Love’, Ashish has seen four cases of honour killing in front of his own eyes. “My close friend Rishikesh Nikam died by suicide after his father, a powerful local politician in Baramati, got his new wife Pooja killed in their flat. Pooja was from the backward caste while Rishikesh comes from an upper caste,” Ashish recalls.
In Pune district alone, there are about 150 love marriages every day. Where do these couples go, Ashish wonders? Where do they live? No one knows. “We live with our lives on our sleeves. We don’t know what can happen to us. No house is “safe” for us”. Ashish complains that people only react once an incident has happened. They take out candle marches once a person is lynched; they make social media posts after a rape. But he thinks more has to be done. “Campaigning is important. But we can do nothing without the government’s help. Police often work in tandem with powerful people. And they only act once they are paid bribes. Common people have no option.” He feels that only laws against casteism and specific laws to deal with runaway couples, both married and unmarried, can help.
With the politicians and laws targeting inter-faith and inter-caste couples, the demands for safe houses across states have gone up. Supreme Court advocate Sneha Kalita agrees that laws that safeguard the rights of runaway and live-in couples are essential to ensure the safety of couples. “Article 21 enshrines the Right to Live. And the judiciary has given ample interpretations in the past to ensure rights of the individuals and their right to live safely with the person of their choice. But to truly help hapless couples, all stakeholders need to be involved. This involves not just the judiciary and the police but the legislature as well.”
Back in the safe house in Delhi, Farooq and Pooja make two daily trips to the nearby hostel for blind kids. They complain about the quality of food served. “Earlier, they used to give us rations so we could cook our own food. Now, we have to go collect the mess food. We are also supposed to get monthly medical bills but the approval often comes a month or two later,” Farooq grumbles. Pooja claims that the police are also biased. When they approached the police in Delhi for help initially, an officer, in turn, told them that they were involved in “love jihad”. It was only after the couple wrote to CM Arvind Kejriwal’s office that their matter was taken seriously. “I feel that though more people are getting literate, the level of education is degrading,” says Farooq.
Alarmed by the growing communalism and the persecution of “love jihad” couples, and their families, by right-wing mobs, Farooq worries about his parents’ safety. As Covid-19 cases rise again, Farooq wishes that the authorities would stop sending them out to get food and start sending rations to them again. Farooq and Pooja have tried to look for a flat in Delhi. Pooja says she wants to live in a flat that is on the second floor: “Not too high, not too close to the ground.” But both fear that living outside of police protection might not be safe yet. The fact that no landlord in Delhi wanted a Hindu-Muslim couple was another matter altogether.