Meerut: The concept of 'love-jihad' floated by Hindutva groups - of a deep-rooted Muslim conspiracy to woo Hindu girls on false pretenses - has now been adopted by the BJP in Uttar Pradesh as one of its key agendas for the state. This comes after the alleged gang-rape and conversion of a Hindu girl in Meerut which the Sangh Parivar sees as a textbook example of 'love jihad,' and which has roiled the already tense atmosphere in the region.
But NDTV retraced the evidence trail of the Meerut episode to find the truth is far more complex than the version that the Sangh Parivar has made part of a public campaign.
An hour's drive from Meerut brings us to a heavily guarded village street, leading to the family and the young woman at the heart of the storm.
On July 23 this year, she disappeared for four days to return with surgery scars on her stomach. Her father says she told them she had gone off on a college trip, during which she suffered acute appendicitis and had to be operated upon.
But she vanished again on July 29, and returned five days later. This time she made an explosive allegation, that she had been abducted, gang-raped and converted into Islam by Muslims of her village, including the village pradhan. The surgery she admitted was to remove an unwanted pregnancy, a testimony that sent shockwaves when it first came to light.
Her statement all the more jolting since she taught in a local madrassa for 10 months, an unusual instance of links to the Muslim community of the village where Hindus and Muslims co-exist peacefully, but the social divide runs deep.
But since then, several questions have arisen about the authenticity of her claims.
In the FIR registered by her family on August 3, it says she was abducted on July 23 and the rape occurred on the same day, in a madrassa in Hapur, near Meerut. The rapists were the village pradhan Nawab and four unnamed men. A local cleric named Sanaullah, it says, was present.
But in her medical examination on the same day, she told the female doctor the rape occurred almost a month earlier on June 29, in an open field.
Two days later, in a more detailed statement before the magistrate, and which has become the official version of events, she goes back to saying that the rape occurred in the Hapur madrassa on June 29, but the rapists were two men: Nawab and a boy she hadn't named so far, Shanu. Sanaullah, she says molested but did not rape her.
The police say that despite the inconsistencies they have gone ahead and arrested almost all those she has named, on the principle that rape victims must be given the benefit of doubt. The issue of deviations will only surface at the trial stage.
These questions have impelled her to face the cameras herself. Speaking to us in the courtyard of her home, she told NDTV, "I never changed anything. If the police writes 29th June to 29th July, what do I do about that?"
The Sangh Parivar has accused the police of tampering with the evidence. They claim the police dragged its feet on registering an FIR, since it is under pressure from a pro-Muslim Samajwadi party government, which is why they had to lead a mob of thousands to the police station.
And yet, the Sangh's intervention has only increased, not reduced, the bad faith surrounding the episode.
At the home of Nawab, the village pradhan, and one of the first to be arrested they say he's been named as a rapist to settle scores. His brother told us he was the first pradhan of the village in three decades, and the Hindus of the village had threatened that they will bring him down. Matters came to a head when he endorsed a new entrance to the village mosque which opened onto the main road, irking the Hindus.
They said on the days he was alleged to have abducted the girl, he was tending his ailing father, who later passed away.
The mother of Nishat, arrested for leading the girl to her alleged rapists, broke down when we met her.
The girl had alleged that Nishat had introduced her to the madrassa, and had duped her into taking a car ride with Sanaullah and Nawab. But Nishat's mother says that while the two were in school they broke off contact several years ago, and that she asked Nishat not to socialise with the girl.
At the madrassa Sultaniya where the girl taught, the maulana, Mohammed Ameeruddin, said that the young woman had come on her own to teach. He said given the amity in the village, it wasn't unusual for the madrassa to hire Hindu women teachers to teach the girl students 'secular' disciplines like maths, science and so on.
The young woman had told us she left the madrassa because they were constantly pressuring her to convert to Islam.
But Maulana Ameeruddin said that the young woman was sacked in May this year because she was always taking leave for long stretches, showing us the attendance register as proof.
The Muslims of the village claim the answers lie with a young man from a neighbouring village, called Kaleem.
In the records of Meerut's government hospital, where she was admitted for an emergency surgery for a pregnancy complication the papers were signed by Kaleem, posing as her husband. On that basis, Kaleem was arrested.
But in her statement, and in the interview to us, she says she was taken for surgery by a different boy, Shanu. "I don't know any Kaleem," she said.
At Kaleem's home, they stonewall our questions, saying they have no idea if Kaleem knew the young woman or not.
If the two families, of the young woman or of Kaleem know more details which can bring us closer to the truth of Meerut, it is unlikely they will reveal it. Politics has crept in, hardening an already rigid social divide in both communities. If both sides are united in anything, it is in stating bluntly that there is no question of their children ever finding a partner across the divide. "We will boycott our son if he does that," said Kaleem's uncle, while the young woman's mother threatened even worse reprisals if their daughter had made such a choice.
Seema Mishra works for AALI, an organisation that for the past 10 years has helped inter-religious couples, whose relationships have put them at great risk. She told us that the Meerut case follows a familiar pattern. "When adult men and women get into relationships disapproved by families, all hell breaks loose and criminal cases are filed against the boy and there is immense pressure on the girl to say she was taken against will. Now it is given communal color for political gain."
Some may ask whether raising doubts amounts to discrediting the testimony of a rape victim. We are acutely sensitive to these concerns - as journalists, we know how tough it is for women to speak up about experiencing sexual violence, especially in states like UP. But our attempt is simply to point out the complexities in the narrative put out by Hindutva groups, who have already pronounced it a deep rooted communal conspiracy without factoring any of these inconsistencies, or that the police probe is still in its nascent stage.
This not only places the individuals at risk, but has incendiary social repercussions. Hence for placing episode's like Meerut under greater scrutiny.