It’s been a month since Mohammad Afzal was convicted under Uttar Pradesh’s love jihad law, and a carpet of silence has fallen over his family. They refuse to speak to the neighbours, journalists, and other busybodies about the case. Afzal is in a prison that’s an hour away from his home, and they have visited him twice so far. But he too has gone silent.
The case of 26-year-old Afzal in Amroha district court has seen India’s first ‘love jihad’ conviction, and a critical win for the politics of the day. The 17-month trial is a live demo of how the hot-button political issue of ‘love jihad’ is hard to fight in a court of law. Full of legal loopholes and faultlines, the case was a volatile mix of POCSO, kidnapping, abuse, religious conversion and youth behaviour on social media in small towns.
The charges and trial took place in a hyperpolitical atmosphere of the Yogi Adityanath government’s new law on ‘love jihad’, passed in 2020 – Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance.
“Conviction has been done keeping in mind the society but in view of the law and human rights, the conviction is wrong,” Afzal’s lawyer Akram Usmani said.
The first conviction is now likely to cast a legal shadow over dozens of others, some said. In UP, 108 cases have been registered under the new law so far, of which the police have filed chargesheets in 72 cases.
So far, 10 states of the country have implemented similar ‘love jihad’ laws.
Afzal, a wood-carver, was charged for committing forced religious conversion along with sections of the POCSO Act because the Hindu girl was a 16-year-old minor. His neighbours contend that Afzal did not kidnap the teen, but the young couple were in love. His lawyers, however, argued in court that Afzal was not present in Amroha, the site of the kidnapping charge.
It was a tense and lengthy trial during which Afzal’s widowed mother moved out of her home into a desolate neighbourhood, her days and nights steeped in anxious prayer. The neighbours have also distanced themselves from her out of police fear.
Finally, the district court in its judgement on 17 September said that it had been proven that the 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted and threatened with death if she didn’t convert to Islam. It added that “the incident of sexual abuse and molestation has been committed by the accused. It is a heinous act, which sends a wrong message to the common man. And such criminals make it difficult for women and girls to come out on the street.”
The law—and Afzal’s conviction—has divided the community. Most residents won’t speak, but a few people like Yasin Muhammed are vocal, articulating what many fear to say out loud.
“There is no such thing as ‘love jihad’. It is only being used as a weapon to torture Muslim boys,” said Yasin, a relative of Afzal. He happens to be running as an independent candidate in the upcoming municipal elections.
“Laws like ‘love jihad’ have been brought to take advantage in the elections.” In prison, however, Afzal told his neighbour, who went to see him, that he is full of regret and pleads to end his ‘suffocation’.
The origin story
Afzal grew up in a low-income neighbourhood of handicraft workers in the western UP town of Sambhal near Amroha. The Hindu teenage girl lived in a small nursery town nearby. She was raised in a family of BJP members and the two met when Afzal went to her father’s nursery to buy saplings in March 2021, according to the police chargesheet. He introduced himself as Arman Kohli and said that he is a Shiva devotee. He even sent her a Snapchat request under that name and she readily accepted. They chatted for a month.
Then, she went missing on 2 April 2021.
The neighbours told her mother that they had seen her leave with a small group of men and women. The chargesheet also quotes Afzal’s landlord saying that he had seen the two in the locality and that he later came to know that she was being forced to convert to Islam.
The two fled to Delhi, where he molested her and tried to marry her, the police said. On 4 April 2021, the police found both of them in Delhi’s Usmanpur.
The minor girl told the court that Afzal tried to forcibly convert her in the presence of a burqa-clad woman. During a heated argument in court, Afzal’s lawyer Ashok Kumar demanded to see the documentary evidence for the act of religious conversion. But special public prosecutor Basant Singh Saini argued that the girl had made her claims and there was no need for evidence beyond her statement.
“No document evidence has been presented by the prosecution regarding conversion of religion. If Afzal was converting, then there must be some document on which the girl must have signed. There is a process to convert to religion too,” Kumar told ThePrint.
But Afzal’s relatives and neighbours claimed that the girl had come to Sarai Tarin looking for Afzal. “A girl was roaming around the streets of our area [Bajariya Chowk] in the morning. We all saw her for the first time here. She asked many about the way to Afzal’s house. She was showing his picture to them and asking about him,” said one resident who did not wished to be named.
His extended family too have rallied around him claiming that he has been “implicated”, and is “innocent”. But even they do not want to be named. Fear and mistrust runs deep in Sarai Tarin. And Afzal’s family is compounded by helplessness to alter his fate.
“Today is the age of social media. It is common for a girl and a boy to
meet online and bond. You cannot clap with one hand. The allegations levelled against Afzal are false,” said a cousin who did not wish to be named.
It all boils down to family honour, according to the cousin, an argument that Afzal’s defence lawyers used in court as well. He claimed that the girl’s family was seeking revenge as Afzal sullied their name. “We also do not want to talk much about this because now Afzal has been punished. Now he cannot come out.”
All the anger that was reportedly building within Afzal with every court appearance dissolved into anguish the day he was sentenced. He sat in the police car, broke down and cried, said a neighbour who was present for all the hearings.
“The victim’s family runs a big businessman and has connections with the ruling BJP as well,” claimed Yasin, hinting at possible political clout.
Everything is hinged on the minor girl’s status. Afzal’s lawyers could not speak about the romance because it would have strengthened the POCSO charges, and weakened his case.
Both his lawyers, Usmani and Kumar, claimed there were contradictions in the girl’s statements before the police and court. “If the court had considered our facts, Afzal would have been out,” Usmani said. The girl used the word ‘we’, which led to disagreement over the meaning and consent.
“We boarded a bus. I don’t know whether it was private or roadways but it was quite crowded. We did not complain to the driver, conductor or other passengers,” the girl said in her IPC-164 statement.
It’s the subtle connotation of the word ‘we’ that has Usmani and Kumar questioning whether she was coerced or not. “When the girl uses ‘we’ in this statement, it means consent. Also, the victim has not registered her protest anywhere on the bus,” said Usmani.
Medical reports showed that the girl had been physically assaulted. There were bruises on her body. The prosecution blamed them on Afzal.
“But the girl has not said anywhere in her statement that Afzal had thrashed her. Then where did the injury come from in the girl’s medical report?” asked Usmani, clutching desperately at straws.
While arguing the case in court, the lawyers tried to pin the bruises on the victim’s family. It’s about honour, they claimed. They painted a picture of a family that was horrified after that their daughter ran away with a Muslim boy 10 years older. “Her family has beaten her up, because of which the injury has occurred,” said Usmani in court.
But the girl’s statement—which they said was contradictory—was their only ‘proof’. According to the defence team, their arguments had some impact because the court awarded Afzal a lesser sentence on two counts. The maximum sentence for Section 363 of the IPC, which is punishment for kidnapping, is seven years, but Afzal was awarded three years in prison.
Similarly, under IPC 366, which includes ‘inducing a woman to compel her marriage’, he was sentenced to five years, even though there is a provision of imprisonment of 10 years. Under this, there is a fine of Rs five lakh but he has been asked to pay a fine of only Rs 25,000, claimed Usmani.
His lawyers may see it as a minor victory of sorts, but the victim’s lawyer Basant Singh Saini disagrees. “The court has given punishment according to the law,” Saini said. He goes back to the girl’s statement. She never said she was raped, but alleged that she had been molested. “That’s why the punishment has also been reduced.”
He savours his success in India’s first ‘love jihad’ case. “This will definitely reduce crimes like ‘love jihad’. This decision will be a precedent for those who try to indulge in ‘love jihad’ or convert. This will instill a fear of law in their mind. And this decision will prove to be a lesson for them,” said Saini.
And then there is the police investigation, which is scrutinised by every defence lawyer. Usmani and Kumar did just that—and found the police wanting.
“If the police had gathered all the evidence, Afzal could have gotten relief,” said Usmani. The lawyers claim that the police did not check the call record details of the mobile phones of both Afzal and the girl.
However, the police and the prosecutor have denied these allegations. “We have gathered all the evidence. Would Afzal have been punished if the evidence was not complete? The statement of the victim was important in this whole matter,” Rajendra Singh, SHO, Amroha’s Hasanpur police station said.
Across India, lawyers have been following his case—some more closely than others because their clients face similar charges. Advocate Masruf Kamaal from Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor district “hopes” that the High Court will dismiss the anti-conversion law in Afzal’s case. He’s fighting a similar ‘love jihad’ case, and the trial is already underway. His client, a teenager, was arrested under the anti-conversion law and under the POCSO sections.
“A case can be made against Afzal under POCSO, but not under anti-conversion. Because religion has not been changed. No affidavit was given to the court from the victim’s side that she had been converted,” he said. Like Yasin, he too sees ‘love jihad’ as “political propaganda in Uttar Pradesh”.
“Anti-conversion laws are for everyone. But if the girl is a Muslim or from another religion (minority) and the boy is Hindu, then they called it ‘ghar wapsi’. Anti-conversion law is not implemented there. If you have made a law then it should be implemented for everyone,” Masruf said. He has accused the administration of double standards.
The burden of proof
Social media chat screenshots also played a role in the court. The fact that he was posing as a Hindu man indicated to the court as a malafide intent. Saini, who represented the girl, said that the girl’s statement was very important.
“Social media chats also strengthened our case. We presented the screenshot of the conversation on Snapchat as proof,” he added.
The unusual haste in the court proceedings is something Afzal’s lawyers eagerly point out as somewhat suspect, in a system where cases tend to drag on. The court’s decision, in this case, has come within 17 months from the incident. Special Public Prosecutor Saini said that during this period, 62 dates were set for the trial.
He described the path to the verdict as “normal”, but Usmani was stymied by the unusual efficiency of the court. “Due to continuous hearing dates, Afzal did not get time to present evidence for himself,” he claimed.
Under Section 12 of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2021, the burden of proof shifts from the prosecution to the accused. “The police have to merely level an allegation against any individual or body, but are not duty bound to prove the same,” Justice Govind Mathur, a former Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, wrote in an article for The Quint where he discussed about this case.
“Intention is another important ingredient to establish an offence. But, under Section 12, the police is not even required to collect any evidence to establish the intention,” he wrote.
Afzal and his lawyers felt the passage of time, though Saini insisted that “they had got enough time to submit the evidence”.
The irony of this case is that three main witnesses for the prosecution were Muslims. It was their statements against Afzal that weakened his defence.
Two witnesses were from Sihali Jageer where the girl lived. Both claimed that “four people, including two women were seen talking to the victim,” the day she went missing.
The third witness was the landlord of the house where Afzal and his family lived in Bajariya. He saw Afzal talking to a girl in the house, and questioned him about her. But instead of replying, Afzal left the house with the girl.
“Later, I came to know that the girl belonged to Sihali Jageer village. Afzal had blackmailed her to get her converted and marry her,” said the landlord in his statement to the police.
But the defence never got to cross-examine the witnesses. They gave their statements before the police, and were never called to the court.
“There are Muslim witnesses in this case but their testimony has not been recorded in the court. After 14 November, we will challenge the decision of this court in the High Court, and will request that the statements of these witnesses be taken before the court,” Kumar said.
He added that from the administration to the High Court, there was an eye on this matter. “This case was included in the ‘Action Plan’ of the High Court, that is why it was to be disposed of soon.”
Under constructed town
India’s first ‘love jihad’ conviction turned the public gaze to the tiny town of Sambhal. But its residents are unhappy and uneasy, preferring obscurity to ignominy.
The Muslim-majority town is gearing up for municipal elections next month. Local party leaders arrive in their cars with increasing regularity, and the youth throw themselves enthusiastically into political events and campaigns.
Conversations are loud and passionate. “There is no college here,” said some youth. “Sambhal needs a hospital first,” others added. Issues are debated fiercely, until Afzal’s name is brought up. Some feign ignorance, others whisper to each other and walk away. He is unmentionable.
“People here are like chickens. Only the one that gets cut cries. Everyone else just keeps watching,” said Yasin jokingly.
The house that Afzal lived in with his family sits on the narrow and closed lane, away from the congested roads of Sarai Tarin. The street is unlit, the house is a kutcha construction. Development bypassed Kachha Illaqa in its march to prosperity.
Afzal’s mother answers the door with a tentative smile, which vanishes when she realises it’s ‘the press’ that has come to her doorstep. “We do not want to talk to the media,” she said, folding her hands to her chest. There’s a resigned acceptance of the events that have upended her life. “Whatever was meant to happen to us has happened. My son is in jail. Now, what shall we do by talking about this? Please, leave us alone.”
She shuts the door.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)