First, the bare bones facts of a riveting romance spanning two cities and three countries. It seemingly has the world agog, but, inexplicably, the media is not digging deep. Seema Ghulam Haider, 27, from Pakistan’s Sindh, fell in love with Sachin Meena, 22, an Indian who lives in Greater Noida, on the international digital killing-field of the multiplayer game PUBG: Battlegrounds.
Along with her four minor children, she made her winding way to meet Sachin, travelling from Karachi to Dubai and then making an illegal entry into India from adjoining Nepal. Having planned the itinerary with Sachin using the help of YouTube videos, she landed up at his doorstep and moved in with him into his rented accommodation. Eventually, the subterfuge came to light when the lawyer they approached to get her domicile in India reported her to the police. The couple was arrested, sentenced to 14-day judicial custody, and given bail four days later by a local civil court convinced of the validity of their “love/friendship”.
Seema says she has converted to Hinduism and given her children Hindu names. The couple now wishes to consolidate the relationship in India with a Hindu marriage. The couple is young and fetching, endearingly naïve on the face of it, each from a country long and implacably hostile to the other. It is a story straight out of Bollywood (and I’m willing to bet that a jingoistic chest-thumper is being storyboarded even as we speak).
But nothing is straightforward in a fairytale. There are questions about Seema’s tale of escape from a dead-end marriage in Pakistan into love in India, and there are legal hurdles to be crossed between three subcontinental nations uncomfortable with one another.
Seema had married Ghulam Haider in February 2014 at Jacobabad in Sindh province, Pakistan. Haider has been working as a labourer in Saudi Arabia since 2019. Seema, who met Sachin online in the same year, says that she and her husband, who was abusive to her from the very beginning, have been out of touch for years. Haider told the Pakistani media that he last spoke to her on May 10 this year, that theirs was a love marriage, and that, forced by disapproval from Seema’s parents, they had relocated to Karachi shortly after the Nikah ceremony.
Seema and Sachin claim that they married according to Hindu rites at the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu on March 13, and that their additional marriage in India would only be to legally and religiously consolidate it.
Here are the doubts. While Nepal has liberal marriage laws, a mere ritual in a temple is not enough to establish marital status in the country between two foreigners, one a Muslim and the other a Hindu. They would need their passports; no-objection certificates from their respective embassies; two witness statements; clear evidence of at least 15 days’ stay in the district in Nepal where the marriage is to be registered; the original document of the marriage law of the home country as well as its Nepali translation; and a notarised affidavit that neither is married to another.
They do not prima facie have these papers. Seema has gone on record that she and Sachin stayed in a hotel (in Pokhara) for a week in March (after which they returned to their respective countries)—which is one week too short. Moreover, the Pashupatinath temple, where they say they took their vows, is in Kathmandu, 200 km from Pokhara and in another district altogether. While Seema has a passport, Sachin does not. A legal marriage could not have been solemnised (not even between two Hindus, which would be recognised in India under the Hindu Marriage Act) because Seema is legally a Muslim and could not have procured a document attesting otherwise.
Can Seema marry Sachin in India? There are several politico-legal and religious hurdles. She has publicly said that Haider had divorced her over the phone: triple talaq. If so, it is illegal—in Pakistan, as in India. She needs to either provide a Talaqnama (divorce deed) from an elected local government body known as the Union Council, or initiate a divorce herself through Khula and obtain a copy of the divorce decree from a family court. Pending either, she remains married to Haider and, therefore, cannot marry Sachin.
Also, there exist in India the currently near-insurmountable obstacles of Pakophobia and convertophobia. Had the tables been turned—if Seema were Indian or Hindu and Sachin Pakistani or Muslim—that insupportable accusation, ‘love jihad’, would have swung into shrill action (instead of the overt demonstration of Indophilic romanticisation now underway in the media and the judiciary).
While canonical Hinduism does not confess to a procedure of proselytism, Hinduism in praxis today does insist on a process of conversion from another faith: Shuddhikaran, or purification ceremony. While there is no Central law on conversion, various states have laws governing it that require legal documentation. (Even the Arya Samaj professes to have a certificated conversion procedure dating back to 1877.) Without this, Seema will remain a Muslim, and cannot, as the couple dearly wishes, be married under the Hindu Marriage Act.
Left unamplified are doubts about Seema’s narrative being raised in Pakistan—about her colloquial-Hindi, Urdu-free speech, and the inconsistency in her statement that she sold her parents’ land, not Haider’s, to fund her odyssey.
The damped ripples here could cause a breaker in Pakistan. A video circulating on social media shows armed men from Haider’s Jakhrani tribe in Jacobabad warning the Indian government of consequences if Seema is not deported.
Most countries tend to go easy on transborder romances, but the subcontinent is another place. Bilateral romances might be driven by the imperatives of statecraft. True love can be dogged by the scepticality of the state. Reality might not be what it seems.