Seema Haider speaks with media representatives at the residence she shares with her partner Sachin Meena in Rabupura village, India. AFP
A love-struck couple from India and Pakistan, who met in a gaming chatroom (PUBG) before sneaking across borders to be together, say their passion trumped national rivalries or fear of religious backlash.
Sachin Meena, 22, an unmarried Indian shopkeeping assistant and a Hindu, connected with 27-year-old Seema Haider, a married Pakistani mother of four and a Muslim, playing the online shooting game PUBG during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
“We became friends and our friendship turned to love and our chats became longer — every morning and night — before we finally decided to meet,” said Seema, speaking to AFP from the cramped courtyard of Sachin’s two-room family home, where she now lives.
Sachin Meena and Seema Haider attend an interview with AFP at their residence in Rabupura village.
Seema, who left Pakistan and her husband with her four children by smuggling herself into India via Nepal in May — for which the couple were arrested then bailed out last week — said she has since married Sachin and taken his name.
“I converted to Hinduism,” she said, sitting next to Sachin in the village of Rabupura, about 55 kilometres from New Delhi. “I’d rather die than return or leave Sachin.”
While the lovers have found each other, the history of their respective nations is bitter. India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed nations, have fought three wars since being carved out of the subcontinent in 1947.
Manzoor Hussain, the landlord of Seema Haider, shows her picture he found in the luggage after she departed in Dhani Bakhsh village. AFP
Each expelled the other’s high commissioner in 2019, and bilateral diplomatic, cultural, business and sporting links are very limited.
Indian police insist that Seema’s long-term stay will be impossible. “I request the Indian government to grant me citizenship”, Seema pleaded, a red headscarf covering her hair and her four young children playing nearby.
Apostasy is considered punishable by death in some interpretations of Islam. Seema said she had already received online threats and insisted the couple would “live and die together.”
Seema’s proclamation of “undying love” for Sachin and a promise to only return to Pakistan “as a dead woman” when they featured on a raucous Indian TV debate this week drew cheers from the crowds sitting around them.
Seema said she had been first attracted by Sachin’s gaming skills. Three years later, the couple met in person in March in Nepal. She became sure about leaving her “abusive” Pakistani husband — charges he denies — after the first meeting.
The couple said it took months of meticulous planning with help from YouTube videos on how to enter India via Nepal. In May, she succeeded.
“It was very difficult to travel from Pakistan to India,” she said. “I believe that with God’s love, we were destined to meet.”
Sachin’s family only learned of her existence when he rented a nearby apartment with her. “There was some resistance, but my father and everyone accepted us. They are happy for us,” said Sachin. “I will do everything for them.”
Indian police found out after they tried to get married at a local court.
‘Still my family’
Seema’s estranged husband, Ghulam Haider, left his job as a labourer and rickshaw driver to earn more money for his family in Saudi Arabia. Haider, who said he had not heard of PUBG, wants his family back.
“I earnestly appeal to Indian and Pakistani authorities to bring my wife and children back to me,” Ghulam Haider told AFP by phone from Saudi Arabia.
Haider said the couple, from different Baloch tribes, have a defiant love story of their own.
Forbidden by their families from marrying, they ran away to get hitched — a taboo in Pakistan that can sometimes lead to so-called honour killings.
“Later, a jirga (council of elders) was summoned to settle the matter and a fine of one million rupees (around $3,640) was slapped on me,” he said. “I am far from my home, from my family, and it is very agonising for me because we married out of love.”
‘She is an adult’
In India, the couple have received a popular welcome. Crowds from nearby villages have been visiting them since their arrest grabbed national headlines.
“We took selfies,” said Rakesh Chand, 37, who drove over an hour to offer his congratulations, one of the dozens lining up to greet them.
“Sachin is very happy, even his family has accepted them, so the government must ensure that she isn’t forced to leave.” But on the streets near her old home in Pakistan, Dhani Bakhsh village in eastern Karachi, the news has not been welcomed.
While people know about Seema’s story, few are willing to talk about the incident openly — though they gossip in small groups on street corners.
“Let’s forget about her, as she has gone and she is an adult,” said Haider’s cousin Zafarullah Bugti, blaming PUBG for turning Seema into “a psycho.”
Seema herself is unrepentant, calling Sachin the “love of her life” and insisting she will dedicate herself to her family. “My children will get all the love, care and attention here,” she said.