Their love affair across one of the world’s most heavily guarded borders had begun on the virtual battlefields of a video game where players bond over having one another’s back against bloody enemy ambushes to become the last survivors.
But when Seema Ghulam Haider, 27, a married Pakistani Muslim, sneaked into India with her four children to be with Sachin Meena, 22, a Hindu man, their time together was brief. About two months after they started secretly living in the same neighborhood in Rabupura, a town outside New Delhi, the couple ran into the Indian authorities.
This week, Ms. Haider and her children were arrested on charges of having illegally entered India; Mr. Meena and his father were also arrested, on charges that amount to little short of conspiring to shelter an enemy.
“I don’t want to go back,” Ms. Haider told reporters as she was taken away by the police, her befuddled children next to her. “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 marry and build a family,” he said as he and his father were arrested.
Among the hurdles the lovers face, perhaps the biggest 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 have ended up in detention on charges of spying. Getting a visa is a bit like winning a lottery.
And in both countries, interfaith relations have become a minefield.
In Pakistan, where Islamic extremism is entrenched, frequent reports emerge of girls from religious minorities, particularly Hindus, being married 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 instance of “love jihad,” or an attempt by Muslim men to pursue Hindu women with the intention of converting them to Islam. That accusation has become part of a larger and consistent demonization of the country’s 200 million Muslims.
Ms. Haider and Mr. Meena met in 2019, in the virtual battlefields of the hugely 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 came up,” the Indian police said in a statement chronicling their relationship.
Ms. Haider had been living 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 appears to have started after her husband, a laborer, moved to Saudi Arabia for a job.
“Sachin used to talk to someone late at night, as late as 2-3 a.m.,” said Birbal Meena, his uncle, who lived with his nephew and extended family in a shared home in Rabupura, about 40 miles southeast of New Delhi.
Initially, the younger Mr. Meena deflected 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 her husband deserted her.”
“We told him, how could he bring a woman from an enemy country?” the uncle said. “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 at a hotel for a week in Kathmandu; police officials said she had come without her children. She returned to Pakistan and he to India — with the promise that they would reunite, using the porous border between India and Nepal.
How did they plan their route for Ms. Haider to finally make it to India, children in tow? By “searching on YouTube,” 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 intention of returning.
Unbeknown to her husband, who is still living in Saudi Arabia, Ms. Haider had sold her house to fund 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 store, had not inflated his story or lured Ms. Haider with fake promises.
“She knew that he was not financially very strong,” said Sudhir Kumar, the head of the Rabupura police station. “She was not impressed by his work, but by his PUBG skills.”
Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting from Karachi, Pakistan.