Sameera Khan, a meat-eating Muslim journalist, and Manish Patel, a Hindu vegetarian corporate type, met on a trek in the Himalayas in 1997. A year after their high-altitude encounter, the two Mumbai residents married. They now have two teenagers.
Yet Ms Khan is appalled at the obstacles facing other interfaith couples in India, where the ruling Bharatiya Janata party sees such unions, particularly between Muslim men and Hindu women, as a demographic offensive against the Hindu majority.
“We watch in horror as young people are criminalised for falling in love, as we did,” Ms Khan wrote on Instagram recently. She and her husband are among many couples now sharing their unorthodox love stories through the India Love Project on Instagram and Facebook, celebrating love “outside the shackles of faith, caste, ethnicity and gender”.
Curated by three journalists — husband and wife Samar Halarnkar and Priya Ramani and their friend Niloufer Venkatraman — the project is intended as an antidote to the public frenzy over “love jihad”, a rightwing concept that sees a broad conspiracy by Muslim men to seduce Hindu women to convert them to Islam.
The India Love Project was launched in October after Tanishq, the Tata Group’s jewellery arm, was accused of glorifying love jihad, with an advert depicting a Muslim woman and her pregnant Hindu daughter-in-law. The project began with Ms Venkatraman’s story of her Parsi mother and Tamil Brahmin father, who met in 1954 while volunteering for a charity, and eventually eloped in 1958 after failing to persuade her large family to agree to their marriage.
Since its launch, the project has been inundated with submissions from couples across India, as well as from the children and grandchildren of interfaith couples. “It took on a life of its own immediately,” Mr Halarnkar said. “All of them write to us saying ‘It’s time to tell our story to the world so others can be inspired.’ The common theme we are finding is, ‘We are here; we are happy and we are part of what it means to be Indian’.”
In recent weeks, police have filed criminal cases against several Muslim men in romantic relationships with Hindu women, and stopped the wedding of a Muslim man and Hindu woman, although both families agreed to the nuptials. Several BJP-ruled states have pledged to introduce laws against love jihad.
Yet the stories and photos collected by the project show how love in India has always transcended conventional religious and communal identities. “I couldn’t let him go just because he prayed to a different God and spoke a different language,” Catholic Maria Manjil from Kerala wrote of her conservative Jain husband, Sandeep Jain. The couple met at work and married in 1998 after overcoming his parents’ resistance.
Many accounts describe protracted struggles with families — and long delays. Novelist Kiran Manral wrote how her Catholic mother and Muslim father, who lived on the same Mumbai street, took 14 years to muster the courage to marry secretly in 1969, before returning to her father’s family home “a fait accompli for both families to deal with”. Her father died 12 years later. “They were together, as man and wife, for fewer years than they had waited to get married to each other,” she wrote.
Mr Halarnkar says acceptance of interfaith love has deteriorated in recent years as the BJP stokes religious tensions and steps up policing of intimate relations. “Interfaith and inter-caste marriage has always been difficult in India,” he said. “But it seems that in the previous decades, once they got through the initial opposition, there was far greater acceptance of the marriage than now.”
In her love project post, Gayathiri Ramadoss, a Hindu who married her Muslim college sweetheart in 2015, expressed sorrow at the growing “hatred, intolerance and judgment against interfaith love” but vowed to raise her daughter “to love beyond religion, caste race and everything”.
Alisha Purandare, daughter of a high-caste Hindu mother and Muslim father, expressed anxiety about India’s direction, despite the happiness of her own interfaith marriage. “We have disagreed about everything under the sun,” she wrote, “except religion”.
Get alerts on Indian society when a new story is published