The love affair across one of the world’s most protected borders began on the virtual battlegrounds of a video game where players help each other survive bloody enemy ambushes.
But when Seema Ghulam Haider, 27, a married Pakistani Muslim, went to India with her four children to be with Sachin Meena, 22, a Hindu man, their time in each other’s company was brief. About two months after starting to live in the same neighborhood near New Delhi, the couple ran into Indian authorities.
This week, Haider and his children were arrested, accused of having entered India illegally; Meena and her father were also arrested, on charges amounting to conspiring to harbor an enemy.
“I don’t want to go back,” Haider told reporters as she was led away by police, her confused children at her side. “I want to marry Sachin. I love him very much. I left everything for him.” Meena also declared her love. “We just want the government to let us get married and raise a family,” he said as he was detained along with his father.
Among the obstacles the lovers face, perhaps the biggest is the rivalry between their respective homelands.
India and neighboring Pakistan –a country that was separated from India in 1947 as the last act of British colonial rule– have fought many wars. The tension is so great that even pigeons that have crossed the border have been detained on charges of espionage. Getting a visa is like winning the lottery.
Interreligious relations in the two countries have become a minefield. In Pakistan, where Islamic extremism is entrenched, there are frequent reports of girls from religious minorities, mainly Hindus, being married at a young age and forcibly converted to Islam, according to human rights groups.
In India, a powerful right-wing Hindu movement condemns any interfaith relationship between a Muslim and a Hindu, calling such unions a “love jihad”, or an attempt by Muslims to harass Hindu women with the intention of converting them to Islam. That accusation became part of a larger demonization of the country’s 200 million Muslims.
Haider and Meena met in 2019 on the game Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG. They began communicating via Instagram and WhatsApp in 2020. “The two became closer, so the desire to meet arose,” Indian police said in a statement.
Haider lived in Karachi, where he had four children with Ghulam Haider. The cross-border romance with Meena appears to have started after her husband, whom she married in 2014, moved to Saudi Arabia for work, according to police and her father-in-law.
“Sachin used to talk to someone late at night,” said Birbal Meena, his uncle, who lived with his nephew and family in a shared house in Rabupura, a town about 65 km southeast of New Delhi.
Initially, Meena dodged questions about her phone calls. “Then he confessed that he was in love with a Pakistani woman and that he intended to marry her,” his uncle said. “He also said that the woman had four children and that her husband abandoned her.”
“We asked him how he could bring a woman from an enemy country. Sachin’s grandfather begged, ‘Please don’t do this’.”
With almost four years of long-distance relationship, the couple met for the first time in March, in Nepal. They stayed in a hotel in Kathmandu for a week. So she went back to Pakistan and he to India with the promise that they would be reunited, crossing the porous border between India and Nepal.
How did they plan their route for Haider to finally reach India, with the kids in tow? “Searching YouTube,” they both told reporters when they were arrested.
The second time Haider left for Nepal, in May, she took her children with her – and had no intention of returning. Unbeknownst to her husband, who still lives in Saudi Arabia, Haider sold their home to finance the trip, said Mir Jan Jhakrani, her father-in-law.
“Suddenly I saw the news on social media that the Indian government had arrested her,” said Jhakrani. The couple could face several years in prison, likely to be followed by Haider’s deportation.
Police officers said their questioning showed that Meena, who earned about $100 a month at a neighborhood store, had not inflated her story or deceived Haider with false promises.
“She knew he had no money,” said Sudhir Kumar, head of the Rabupura police station. “She wasn’t impressed with his work, but with his PUBG skills.”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves