At first glance, what strikes you about Muskan (Pinky) is how skinny and frail she looks, huddled in bed under a blanket: a far cry from her glowing self in the photograph of herself with Rashid which made it to the Telegraph UK story on her forced abortion.
Mohammad Sartaj Alam, one of the journalists who broke the story, had advised Muskan’s mother-in-law to get a fresh ultrasound in some hospital outside Moradabad district. So Muskan was taken to Bijnor, where she got an ultrasound done at a private clinic. The report reads, clearly “RPC/blood clots in UT”. This shows that there are “retained products of conception” (foetal matter left over after a miscarriage or abortion) in her uterus. We sent this ultrasound report to a senior gynaecologist, Dr Puneet Bedi, in Delhi, and had Muskan speak to him on phone. She told him she continued to bleed and experience pain. He explained to her, and to us, that it is standard practice to prescribe a course of antibiotics and painkillers after any miscarriage (whether it was spontaneous or induced by abortifacients). Failing this, uterine infections could develop, which might even prevent future pregnancies.
Muskan has alleged that the District Women’s Hospital in Moradabad where she was taken while in police custody, injected her with abortifacients to induce an abortion. The hospital denies this – but their denial rings false because of their suspicious conduct. They declared that no miscarriage had occurred – which is now proven to be a lie. Most shockingly, in actions that befit a Mengele, they did not prescribe any antibiotics to Muskan after the miscarriage. Surely they knew that this could mean that she might lose her ability to ever bear a child? They also withheld Muskan’s treatment papers from her, though she asked for them.
Kawalpreet Kaur from the All India Students’ Association and Sneha, an advocate from the Human Rights Law Network, went to buy the medicines Dr Bedi had prescribed, as Muskan made an effort to sit up and speak to me. Her mother-in-law, Naseema, and two aunts of Rashid’s who have come down from Uttarakhand, ask me whether it is safe to give her eggs, meat and ghee to strengthen her up. She has been wasting away from blood loss, weakness, sorrow at the miscarriage and worry for Rashid’s wellbeing, they tell me.
Asked about how she and Rashid met, she hid a little smile: the memory still brought her joy. She has a BA degree, and she was living alone and working in a financial company in Dehradun, when she met Rashid, who ran a saloon. They courted each other for over a year, then got married in July 2020.
Naseema told us that after the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020 was passed, she began to worry about her son and daughter-in-law. She knew they had done a nikah ceremony in July 2020 in Dehradun, after duly informing the SP Dehradun as required by Uttarakhand’s own Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act 2018. Since then, they had been living together happily, and Muskan was pregnant. But Naseema was uneasy, hearing all the hateful warnings issued by the UP chief minister and other Bharatiya Janata Party leaders against interfaith relationships. She asked a lawyer, Deepak, whether it was advisable for the couple to get the marriage registered, to protect them from any harassment. He told her that the marriage must be registered, and took Rs 5,000 from her to get the documents uploaded and the marriage registered. Either he, or someone in the bureaucracy who was part of the registration process, must have informed the Bajrang Dal.
Muskan describes how, on December 5, she, Naseema and Rashid’s brother Salim were accosted by a violent Bajrang Dal mob on their way to get the marriage registered. The mob abused them, slapped and roughed up Salim, and videotaped the whole episode. I found a video on Facebook of some part of this heckling. It is striking to see how calm and confident Muskan manages to remain, in the face of the Bajrang Dal thugs. They tell her, “You have to get permission from the DM to get married – they’ve had to make a law for the likes of you.” Asked on camera if her father or “guardian” has given her permission to marry Rashid, she replies, “I am an adult, I am 22, I have married him of my own choice five months ago.”
The Bajrang Dal got Muskan’s mother to the police station, and induced her to file an FIR alleging that Rashid had masqueraded as a Hindu to seduce her daughter, who is from a Scheduled Caste. Muskan scoffed when I asked her about this: “I am an adult, I know my own mind, and I was living on my own when I met Rashid. I knew full well he was Muslim. We loved each other. I converted to Islam of my own accord, and we both got married. My mother does not know him, she has just parroted whatever the Bajrang Dal men asked her to.”
Why did Muskan need to convert to Islam, and why did Rashid and she choose a nikah ceremony rather than registration under the Special Marriage Act? Muskan’s experience of trying to get her marriage registered answers that riddle quite well. The SMA or registration process discriminates against couples. It places hurdles that couples who marry under the Hindu or Muslim or Christian or other religious laws do not face. Unlike religious ceremonies, the SMA process requires a couple to put up a public notice of their intention to marry, and allow a month’s interval for anyone to raise an objection to the marriage. Informers within the bureaucracy alert the Hindu-supremacist outfits, and they spring into action to separate the couple, unleash violence and prevent the marriage. In the case of Muskan and Rashid also, the Bajrang Dal thug-in-chief who interfered boasts that he has a network of informers everywhere.
It is to avoid this kind of violence that couples choose a religious ceremony. Since patriarchal objections to the marriage are most likely to be raised by the woman’s community, it is the women in such relationships who tend to convert to their partner’s faith. In another recent instance in UP, a Muslim woman converted to the Hindu faith to marry Naman, a Hindu young man.
On the day we visited Muskan, Rashid and Salim were released from prison. The police itself had filed a petition under Section 169 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, informing a magistrate that they lacked evidence against the accused. But, as Muskan told us, the police knew the truth from the start. Yet, they acted to appease the Bajrang Dal thugs rather than punish them for their attempts to terrorise an interfaith couple. It is no wonder that Hindu supremacist thugs in UP act like a shadow government – after all, one of their own is the chief minister. When Adityanath issues death threats to Muslim men who love and marry Hindu women, he is promising the thugs his blessing and protection.
So on December 5, what was to be a happy and festive occasion turned into a nightmare. Rashid and his brother Salim were taken away to prison, Muskan was taken into a “shelter home”, and Rashid’s younger brother Nasir escaped a mob of Bajrang Dal thugs who were out to lynch him.
What Muskan told us about the shelter home was not surprising. “It is a prison, women are tortured there,” she said, adding that there are other adult women imprisoned there for the crime of loving someone from a different caste or faith. “Their parents claim they are minors, and they are kept there, prevented from having mobile phones. No one but their own parents are allowed to meet women incarcerated in these “shelter” homes, they are made to cook and clean, and the staff bully them. They are told that they can be free from the “shelter home” only if they agree to give up their relationship and be released into parental custody.”
The police and shelter home authorities knew Muskan was pregnant. Yet she was taken away from a loving home, violently separated from her husband who was jailed, and taken into custody as though she were a criminal. A few days later, she began to develop abdominal pains. The shelter home authorities said she was making it all up. When the pain became unbearable, she was eventually taken to hospital on December 11, where she was admitted, and, except for a brief interval, remained till December 14. She says that she was given tablets and injections by the hospital authorities, after which she miscarried.
When Muskan was still in custody, I had heard a recording of a phone call she had managed to make to her mother-in-law. I asked Muskan how she managed to make the call. She said one could bribe the shelter home staff to use a phone. With great presence of mind, she recalled Naseema’s number and managed to call and tell her that she suspected she had been forced to miscarry.
When Rashid and Salim come home, Naseema and the boys’ aunts embrace them fiercely. Rashid and Salim are weeping. Rashid comes over to Muskan and holds her, and both are in tears. As media cameras flash and TV journalists keep asking questions, Rashid whispers to Muskan. He is obviously devastated at her weak appearance.
But Rashid and Salim are both guarded in what they say about the police. They were escorted into their own home by an officious, grim and unsmiling man in a black suit, who kept saying to the family “What are all the tears for, it is all okay now, all is now well.” This man kept trying to disperse the media as well as activists like us. A friend of the family whispered to me that this man worked with the police, and his presence was meant to remind Rashid and Salim that they were being watched.
Rashid’s is a very poor, working class household in Kanth village in UP’s Moradabad district. Naseema has had to spend a lot of money in bribes. Without bribes, she said, it was impossible to get warm clothes to her daughter-in-law in the shelter home, nor to her sons who were being held captive in a quarantine centre.
By the police’s own admission, there is no evidence that Muskan, Rashid or Salim had committed any crime. Their arrest and detention was clearly illegal. The officious man in a suit may say “no harm has been done and all is well”, but in fact, Muskan and Rashid and their loved ones are all victims of a series of violent acts by the Bajrang Dal, and by a range of UP government authorities including the police, shelter home and hospital.
It would be truly obscene if we, the people of India, too say “no harm done”, shrug and look the other way.
A loving husband and wife were violently attacked by an outfit which, by its own admission, trains its members in violence and makes a habit of separating interfaith couples. The police, instead of acting against the thugs, illegally arrested the victims of the violence. A pregnant woman was subjected to trauma. Whether as a result of the trauma or as a result of forced administration of abortifacients, she suffered a miscarriage. The authorities lied, denied the miscarriage, and in order to protect the lie, failed to protect her from a possible uterine infection that could affect child-bearing in the future. In two weeks, a pregnant bride in the pink of health has been reduced to a shadow of herself.
UP’s anti-love ordinance is a blood-purity law to rival Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws. Muskan’s and Rashid’s case is not a “misuse” of the law. The only “use” of such an ordinance is to give legal cover to Hindu supremacist thugs who inflict violence on interfaith couples. It is not enough for such ordinances to be struck down and declared unconstitutional by courts.
Courts, if they are to do their duty, must order a countrywide probe into the violent Hindu supremacist outfits that terrorise interfaith couples, and their enablers embedded in the police and administration. They must mandate changes in the Special Marriage Act to do away with the month-long notice period. The Supreme Court’s right to privacy judgement must not just be an elegant piece of prose for the history books. Courts must act to protect the right of interfaith, inter-caste and same-sex couples to privacy, so that any government employee who leaks information about impending marriages to vigilante groups, should lose his job and face prosecution.
And last, but not least, all laws seeking to restrict conversion must be struck down. Faith, like love and marriage, is a private affair. The state cannot claim authority to ask adult individuals to furnish justifications for their decision to convert, or to marry.
Kavita Krishnan is secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA).