A love story that challenges nationalism in South Asia? Not so fast

Majoritarian Pakistani Muslims bemoan the loss of one of “their” women, while majoritarian Indian Hindus question the loyalties of “another’s” woman. A woman in love threatens both Indians and Pakistanis.
Published August 19, 2023

Two lovers, one from India and another from Pakistan, have captivated two estranged nations. In May, Sachin Meena, 22, and Seema Ghulam Haider, 27, met for a tryst in Nepal. The lovers then crossed to India, and last month, local police in Noida arrested Seema, a Pakistani national, for illegally entering the country. A court has since granted her bail, ruling that “the applicant has not entered the borders of India with any wrong intention.”

Having met virtually on an online gaming platform, the couple now lives near Delhi. As they await a ruling and face interrogations, some reporters are calling it a “happy family union”, while right-wing nationalists in both countries are making threats and calling for Seema to be deported to Pakistan. Both countries are occupied with a woman’s movement.

The audacity of love

Hardly 76 years ago, India and Pakistan were not separate countries. Today, when cumbersome restrictions prevent most Pakistanis from getting visas to visit India and vice versa, the realisation of such romances are quite a feat. Last month, Anju, an Indian woman crossed the border to marry Nasrullah, a Pakistani man she met on Facebook. The audacity of love seems to have trumped the artifice of borders.

But Seema and Sachin’s union shows not only that love can cross borders, but that borders inhibit love. Nationalist politics shape who can and cannot cross borders. While Seema may have a chance at staying in India with Sachin, not all lovers can cross the lines in the sand between India and Pakistan.

The colonial India-Pakistan border divides neighbours into citizens versus foreigners, natives versus migrants. The neighbouring countries with a shared past are building fences, separating kin and relatives.

That these two lovers met virtually on an online gaming platform — that too, an online battleground — feels both farcical and uncannily apt. As nations increasingly fight their wars remotely and people divided by border walls meet on digital screens, life can feel like a simulation. Are Seema and Sachin disarming the nationalists and their hostilities? If nationals themselves are circumventing borders to realise their love, then who are these nations for?

If Seema and Sachin’s union is a victory for lovers, it is also fodder for haters. Their union yokes Pakistan and India, as mother and mother-in-law. Crossing the threshold between the figurative daughter and daughter-in-law, Seema is both reviled and welcomed.

On social media, Indians are calling Seema a Pakistani spy. For Pakistanis, she is an Indian spy, allegedly evinced by her being a Sindhi and converting to Hinduism. Can Sachin, a Hindu man, satisfy Seema? Will a woman who converts be able to return to her family?

Majoritarian Pakistani Muslims bemoan the loss of one of “their” women, while majoritarian Indian Hindus question the loyalties of “another’s” woman. A woman in love threatens both Indians and Pakistanis. As nationalists across borders invoke the same xenophobic tropes, in different idioms, the colourful flags of respective nations seem to blur into each other, leaving us with a familiar story of men trying to regulate women’s decisions.

The patron states of women

Since Partition, both countries have made themselves patriarchal patrons of women. Seema has petitioned to stay in India, on the basis that it is her “matrimonial home”. Post-independence, both governments agreed to recover and exchange abducted women following Partition in 1947. In 2018, the Indian government announced itself as the foster parent of Geeta, a woman who lived in Pakistan.

Nevertheless, the Indian state making an exception for a Pakistani Muslim woman to stay, so far, in the country is touching and troubling in this moment of nationalist rule. In a patriarchal, Hindu nationalist India, it is hard to imagine the converse, where a Pakistani Muslim man falling in love with an Indian Hindu woman would be welcomed. Neither would an Indian Hindu groom likely be welcomed in Pakistan. As a scholar of migration across these countries’ borders, I recognise how states selectively welcome people based on their religion, caste, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality.

And while some constricting veins of South Asian popular culture celebrate the inter-religious unions of Hindus and Muslims — think Jodhaa and Akbar, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor — a popular welcoming of inter-caste and queer unions are unfortunately beyond the national and international pale.

Nationalist politics unequally determine who can cross human-made walls, yielding a wide gap in “travel freedom”. Only when we stop questioning the movements of individuals and start questioning the legality of national borders that impinge on our rights to migrate, will we see a true challenge to nationalist politics in South Asia.

In the meantime, we need to pay close attention to the politics of who gets to cross borders and who doesn’t. Here is to more lovers, in all directions, being united.

The header image is created using the Shutterstock AI tool.