Video game The love story between Indians and Pakistanis ends up in prison

Their romance across one of the world’s most guarded borders began on the virtual battlefields of a video game where players team up to have each other’s backs against bloody enemy ambushes to become the last survivors.

But when Seema Ghulam Haider, 27, a married Pakistani Muslim, snuck off to India with her four children to be with Sachin Meena, 22, a Hindu man, their time together was short. About two months after starting to secretly live in the same neighborhood in Rabupura, a city outside New Delhi, the couple ran into Indian authorities.

This week, Ms. Haider and her children were arrested on suspicion of entering India illegally; Mr. Meena and her father were also arrested, on charges amounting to little less than conspiring to protect an enemy.

“I don’t want to go back,” Ms Haider told reporters as she was taken away by police, her confused children beside her. “I want to marry Sachin. I love him very much. I left everything for him.”

Mr. Meena also affirmed his love.

“We just want the government to let us get married and start a family,” he said as he and his father were arrested.

Among the obstacles the lovers face, perhaps the greatest is the acrimony between their respective homelands.

India and neighboring Pakistan – a country that was cut off from 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, interreligious relations have become a minefield.

In Pakistan, where Islamic extremism is rooted, there are frequent reports of girls belonging to religious minorities, especially Hindus, who were 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 an example of “love jihad,” or an attempt by Muslim men to prosecute Hindu women with the intention of converting them to ‘Islam. That accusation has become part of a larger and more consistent demonization of the country’s 200 million Muslims.

Ms. Haider and Mr. Meena met in 2019, on the virtual battlefields of the hugely popular game PUBG (pronounced pub-gee). They transitioned to using Instagram and WhatsApp, among other media, in 2020.

“They both became close, so the desire to meet arose,” Indian police said in a statement detailing their relationship.

Ms Haider lived in Karachi where she had four children with her husband, Ghulam Haider, whom she married in 2014, according to police and her father-in-law.

Ms Haider’s cross-border romance with Mr Meena appears to have begun after her husband, a factory worker, moved to Saudi Arabia for work.

“Sachin was talking to someone late at night, until 2-3 in the morning,” said Birbal Meena, his uncle, who lived with his nephew and extended family in a shared house in Rabupura. about 40 miles southeast of New Delhi.

Initially, the young Mr. Meena diverted questions about his phone calls.

“Then he confessed that he was in love with a Pakistani woman and intended to marry her,” his uncle said. “He also said that the woman had four children and that her husband abandoned 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.'”

Nearly 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 had come without her children. She returned to Pakistan and he to India, on the promise that they would reunite, taking advantage of the porous border between India and Nepal.

How did they plan their route for Ms. Haider to finally arrive in India, children in tow? “Searching YouTube,” they both told reporters when they were arrested.

The second time Ms. Haider left for Nepal, in May, she brought her children and it was clear she had no plans to return.

Unbeknownst to her husband, who still lives in Saudi Arabia, Ms Haider had sold her house to finance her trip, said Mir Jan Jhakrani, her father-in-law.

“Then suddenly I found the news on social media – that the Indian government had arrested her,” Jhakrani said.

The couple could face several years in prison, most likely followed by the expulsion of Ms. Haider and her children.

Police officers said their questioning showed that Mr. Meena, who earned about $100 a month at a corner store, had not inflated his story or lured Ms. Haider with false promises.

“He knew he wasn’t financially strong,” said Sudhir Kumar, the head of the Rabupura police station. “She was not impressed by her work, but by her skills in PUBG.”

Aunt ur-Rehman contributed reporting from Karachi, Pakistan.