Their love affair across one of the world’s most heavily guarded borders began on the virtual battlefields of a video game where players bond over having each other face bloody enemy ambushes to become the last survivors.
But when Seema Ghulam Haider, 27, a married Pakistani Muslim, snuck into India with her four children to be with Sachin Meena, 22, a Hindu man, their time together was short. About two months after they began secretly living in the same neighborhood outside New Delhi, the couple ran into the Indian authorities.
This week, Ms. Haider and her children were arrested on charges of illegally entering India; Mr. Meena and his father were also arrested, on charges that amount to little short of conspiracy to harbor an enemy.
“I don’t want to go back,” Ms Haider told reporters as she was led away by police, her distraught children by her side. “I want to marry Sachin. I love him a lot. I left everything for him.”
Mr. Meena also affirmed his love.
“We just want the government to let us get married and build a family,” he said as he and his father were detained.
Among the obstacles the lovers face, perhaps the greatest is the acrimony between their respective homelands.
India and neighboring Pakistan – a country that was carved out of India in 1947 as the last act of British colonial rule – have fought many wars. Tensions are so high that even suspicious pigeons crossing the border ended up in detention on charges of espionage. Getting a visa is a bit like winning the lottery.
And in both countries inter-religious relations have become a minefield.
In Pakistan, where Islamic extremism is entrenched, there are frequent reports of girls from religious minorities, especially Hindus, being married off at a young age and forcibly converted to Islam, according to human rights groups.
In India, a powerful Hindu right-wing movement condemns any interfaith relationship between a Muslim and a Hindu, calling such unions an example of “love jihad”, or an attempt by Muslim men to pursue Hindu women with the intention of converting them to Islam. . That accusation became part of a larger and consistent demonization of the country’s 200 million Muslims.
Mrs. Haider and Mr. Meena met in 2019, in the virtual battlefields of the very popular game PUBG (pronounced pub-gee). They moved on to using Instagram and WhatsApp, among other media, in 2020.
“They both grew closer, so the desire to meet arose,” the Indian police said in a statement chronicling their relationship.
Mrs. Haider lived in Karachi, where she had four children with her husband, Ghulam Haider, whom she married in 2014, according to the police and her father-in-law.
Ms. Haider’s cross-border romance with Mr. Meena seems to have started after her husband, a laborer, moved to Saudi Arabia for work.
“Sachin used to talk to someone late at night, until 2-3 am,” said Birbal Meena, his uncle, who lived with his nephew and extended family in a shared home in Rabupura, a town about 40 miles southeast of New. Delhi.
At first, the younger Mr. Meena deflected questions about his phone calls.
“Then he confessed that he had fallen in love with a Pakistani woman and intended to marry her,” said his uncle. “He also said that the woman had four children and her husband had left her.”
“We told him, how could he bring a woman from an enemy country?” said the uncle. “Sachin’s grandfather begged him, ‘Please don’t do this.'”
Almost four years into their long-distance relationship, the couple met for the first time in March in Nepal. They stayed in a hotel for a week in Kathmandu; police officials said she came without her children. She returned to Pakistan and he to India – with the promise that they would be reunited, using the porous border between India and Nepal.
How did they plan their route so that Mrs. Haider would finally make it to India, children in tow? Through a “YouTube search,” both told reporters when they were arrested.
The second time Mrs. Haider left for Nepal, in May, she brought her children – and it was clear that she had no intention of returning.
Unknown to her husband, who still lives in Saudi Arabia, Ms. Haider sold her house to finance her trip, said Mir Jan Jhakrani, her father-in-law.
“Then I suddenly found the news on social media – that the Indian government had arrested her,” Mr Jhakrani said.
The couple could face several years in prison, most likely followed by deportation for Ms. Haider and her children.
Police officials said their interrogation showed that Mr. Meena, who earned about $100 a month at a corner shop, did not inflate his story or lure Ms. Haider with false promises.
“She knew that he was not financially very strong,” said Sudhir Kumar, the head of the Rabupura police station. “She wasn’t impressed by his work, but by his PUBG skills.”
Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting from Karachi, Pakistan.