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Why Seema Haider’s decision to love has angered fundamentalists in India and Pakistan

A fragile young woman has suddenly emerged as a challenge to two dominant discourses of our time. Her story has stirred the consciousness of two nuclear-armed neighbors – India and Pakistan. The first discourse that has been challenged is patriarchy. This mother of four dared to live with a man she chose for herself. The agents of patriarchy on both sides have started screaming – how dare you?

Initially, the reaction of “deshbhakt” Hindus was very interesting. Seema Haider was a trophy worth displaying, the sign of victory. After all, aren’t “love jihadis” luring “innocent Hindu girls” and bringing shame to the great sanatana values? The hard-liners among Muslims on the other side were stunned. Unsurprisingly, they demanded punishment for such errant behavior under Sharia law: stoning to death or at least killing by a “civilised” hanging.

Seema Haider’s actions present a challenge that no patriarchy can tolerate.

The “defeated” side did what they could. Abdul Haq, a former lawmaker from Sindh in Pakistan – he had the dubious distinction of converting hundreds of hapless kidnapped Hindu girls and marrying them to Muslim men, in many cases twice or thrice their age – declared that if Haider is not returned to Pakistan, nobody can take the responsibility of the safety of Hindu girls in the country. A dacoit became the savior of the faith and fired rockets at a Hindu mandir and threatened consequences in case Seema was not sent back.

But patriarchy is not the only discourse. India’s new “nationalism” made its presence felt too. A Muslim woman, especially of Pakistani origin, is seen as part of a deep conspiracy. Why else would she come to India? To be with the man she loved?

She must have been sent, this discourse imagines, by the ISI to damage our great nation. Hence here arrival, mobile phone, movements and falling for an Indian man should be thoroughly looked into. Most such “deshbhakts” want her to be sent back.

Interestingly, hardliners on both sides of the border are on the same page. Both are going after Seema Haider’s rights to life and freedom. Both are demanding her extradition. Everyone knows that the moment she puts her foot on Pakistani soil, she is in danger of being killed. Unfortunately, that country has a dubious track record in such instances. Remember that even Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was gunned down by his own guard for demanding modern justice in a case of “blasphemy” for a poor Christian woman waiting for the gallows.

To sustain its position, the nationalist discourse requires the notion of “conspiracy”, without which an issue may not be interesting enough to gain traction. So, questions were raised about how she managed to enter India so easily via Nepal. Everybody seems to forget that the India-Nepal border is one of the most open. Where did she get the sophisticated mobile phone? Nobody seemed to realize that it is one of the easiest things to purchase in any of the three countries she has traveled through. Her mobile phone(s) are with security agencies and they can easily retrieve the messages and the numbers of those she has contacted. But that may not be so sensational.

Those who know these details and the truth of the matter are not doing what they are supposed to. Instead, they are doing what they do best – leaking half-baked facts to TV news personalities-cum-propagandists. The latter, in turn – after each unverified leak – scream “look, I told you she is an enemy agent”. After a few days, a simple love story is mired in conspiracy and mystery.

It is not unusual that both Hindutva and radical Islam are unanimous in their view that Seema Haider should be deported. Patriarchy will be satisfied that she is back to the man who has “rightful” control of her body. Ultimately, it is the man who should have the final say and Haider has defied this rule. She must be punished. The Hindu right-wing, which in the beginning thought that it had “won”, now wants to taste blood. A woman had dared claim the right to her body and she must be punished.

Both Hindu and Muslim male chauvinists are clear this woman deserves punishment.

So, what are the options? If this great country – the fifth-largest economy in the world, which never seems to tire of late in claiming the status of “vishwaguru” – can’t house Seema, she should be sent to some more civilized place. Preferably a Nordic country or Germany. They have given shelter to such persecuted people in the past. Sending her to Pakistan will be sending her to a place of brutal, and likely death.

Rai, a retired IPS officer, is the author of Hashimpura 22 May, a chronicle of the 1987 custodial killings

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