Between Love and Jihad in Kerala

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The ordeal of Akhila-Hadiya

IT TOOK SEVERAL days of waiting and repeated phone calls to get an opportunity to visit the home of Hadiya. I was with a team of six activists and academics. The road leading to the house at TV Puram at Vaikom in Kottayam district resembles a fortified zone. Close-circuit TV cameras and high-voltage lights surround it. More than a dozen policemen ring the house, where she lives, with her father KM Ashokan keeping a close watch. This is not surprising, as Hadiya—who was brought up as Akhila but has had aliases such as Hadiya, Aasiya and Adhiya—is at the heart of a row over ‘love jihad’ in Kerala. The complicated case and judicial proceedings over it have led to a heated debate that has acquired political overtones.

The stress of it is telling on Ashokan. When approached to meet his daughter, he angrily rebuffs the attempt. As soon as the policemen at the gate inform him about visitors, he dispatches an angry ‘no’. After a brief conversation in which he expresses regret over being an atheist and rues not having taught his daughter Hindu values, he retreats and the matter ends.

It has been four months since Hadiya returned to this residence and virtually no one in the outside world has met or spoken to her since. Only Rahul Easwar, a right-wing activist had a chance to speak to her during this period. Hadiya’s father later filed a complaint against Easwar for releasing video footages of Hadiya and her parents speaking to Easwar without their consent. There are allegations that she was ‘handed over’ to her parents against her will after she converted to Islam and married a Muslim, a marriage annulled by the Kerala High Court on a petition submitted by her father. She was seen on TV being taken away in a police jeep while she shouted into television cameras that she did not want to go home. Ashokan was given custody of his daughter on May 24th this year after protracted police and legal proceedings that began at the start of 2016.

In the time since Hadiya’s return, attempts were made by the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad to meet her. On August 30th, a team of six women visited the house but were denied permission to meet her. These activists staged a protest in front of the house carrying placards against the ‘infringement of the personal liberty of an adult educated woman’. Numerous petitions have been submitted to the state women’s commission demanding justice for her. In spite of these protests, political parties in Kerala have kept a hands-off approach from the matter.

Hadiya had told the court that she wanted to attend a course in Islam at the Markazul Hidaya Sathyasarani. The court permitted this. Had there been nothing more to it, the matter would have ended there

THE CASE BEGAN on January 7th, 2016, when, according to a writ petition filed by her father in the Kerala High Court, Akhila went missing. He alleged that Hadiya had been ‘mislead and misguided’ by her friends Jaseena and Faseena and their father Aboobacker. Following Ashokan’s complaint, police arrested Aboobacker under various sections of the IPC.

When Hadiya appeared before the court accompanied by one Sainba of Kottakal in Malappuram district. She claimed that her conversion was voluntary. According to an affidavit she submitted in the High Court in September 2016, she became a believer of Islam in 2013 and she did not have a Muslim boyfriend when she chose to change her religion.

In her statement to the court, Hadiya claimed she had been confused and sceptical about the ‘multiple gods’ in the Hindu faith and was attracted to the ‘one god’ philosophy of Islam. As an adult of sound mind, she had the right to do so. After all, she was a 24-year-old student enrolled at a college in Salem, Tamil Nadu, in pursuit of a Bachelor of Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery degree. The court found that Hadiya left home to study Islam on her own free will, and dismissed the writ petition in her favour on January 25th.

Expressing a desire to study Islam, Hadiya had told the court that she wanted to attend a course at the Markazul Hidaya Sathyasarani near Manjeri in Malappuram district. The court permitted this. Had there been nothing more to it, the matter would have ended there.

Then something else happened. In August last year, Ashokan approached the court again and expressed fear that his daughter was likely to be trafficked out of the country. Hadiya appeared again before the court, though only two weeks later, after Kerala Police reported that she had gone missing. The second writ was heard by another division bench, which did not approve of Hadiya’s plea to allow her to leave of her free will. The Kerala High Court now decided to take a closer look at the entire matter.

When the hearing for the second case began on August 17th, 2016, the Kerala High Court had not brought the National Investigation Agency (NIA) into the picture. On the 22nd of the month, the investigating officer informed the court that Hadiya had been moved to an undisclosed location. The court then directed that Hadiya be produced on the 25th. On the appointed day, instead of listening to her or her lawyer’s appeal, the high court directed her to be sent to SNV Sadanam in Ernakulam and ordered the investigating officer of the case at Perinthalmanna to probe the antecedents of the Markazul Hidaya Sathyasarani Education and Charitable Trust, as also those of Sainba, the woman with whom Hadiya was now living.

Matters took yet another turn in December, when Hadiya appeared before the court along with one Shafin Jahan and told the court that she had married him on December 19th. Police and NIA reports state that, ‘During the hearing in Writ Petition (Criminal) 297 of 2016, the Hon’ble High Court of Kerala had raised various doubts regarding Akhila’s conversion to Islam, the genuineness of the marriage conducted between Akhila and Shafin Jahan on 19 December 2016, the financial sources of Sainba and her husband Aliyar and the organizational support for conversion and marriage, chances of trafficking Akhila abroad etc.’

In August 2016, Ashokan approached the court again and expressed fear that his daughter was likely to be trafficked. Hadiya appeared before the court two weeks later, after the police reported she had gone missing

By then, the suspicions of the court had been provoked. Who was Sainba? And what was the role of the SDPI in shielding Hadiya against the wishes of her family? At that time, Hadiya was sent to SNV Sadanam for a second time. The state police was ordered to conduct a thorough probe. Finally, the case ended in May this year when Akhila Ashokan was sent back to her parents and her marriage with Shafin Jahan was annulled. The case is now at the Supreme Court on a special leave petition submitted by Hadiya’s husband.

According to the NIA report, accessed by Open’s Delhi bureau, Hadiya aka Akhila was an impressionable girl studying medicine. At Shivraj Homeopathy Medical College in Salem, she lived with four other girls from Kerala, two of whom—Jaseena and Faseena—were particularly close to her. During her stay in Salem, Akhila increasingly gravitated towards Islam by observing Jaseena. The latter provided her with all the support she needed as her religious beliefs transformed and she acquired an Islamic identity. In this, social media is reported to have played a role. Through this medium, she got in touch with a Muslim couple, Sherin Shahana and her husband Fasal Musthafa. She met the couple in Ernakulam in August 2015. There, she recited the ‘Shahadath Kalima’, as reported, the Islamic testament of faith that is recited upon conversion. All this happened roughly five months before her father got to know what was going on in his daughter’s life. That was the point when she signed her first affidavit declaring that she had converted to Islam. Her new name: Aasiya.

Soon after that, adds the NIA report, she returned to her college and then later in December to her home in Vaikom. It was then that her family detected the first signs that something else was afoot. After the death of her paternal grandfather, Akhila refused to participate in the bali rites stating that Islam did not sanction these. On January 2nd this year, she went to meet Jaseena, leaving home on the pretext of going to Salem. There she told her classmate that she wanted to study Islam. She stayed there without informing her parents. She signed a second affidavit on her voluntary conversion to Islam on January 4th. Accompanied by Jaseena and her father Aboobacker, she went to Therbiyathul Islam Sabha (TIS) in Kozhikode to gain admission to a course in Islamic studies. She was only offered admission as an external candidate as she was not accompanied either by her parents or a guardian. Here, her name was noted as Aadhiya.

By then, according to the NIA report, Hadiya had abandoned her plans to return to Salem as her other classmates had informed Ashokan that she had converted and had been seen wearing Islamic attire in college earlier. By this time, Hadiya had also contacted officials at Markazul Hidaya Sathyasarani, who, in turn, provided her the contact details of Sainba, who, as it emerged during investigation, was the president of National Women’s Front, the woman’s wing of the PFI. In these 14-15 days, Akhila was shifted often from one location to another in what the authorities consider an effort to keep the police off her trail. Her mobile phone was switched off after she made a last call to Ashokan on January 8th, telling him that she was going to Mangalore. Four letters signed by her were posted to her father and the police from Kasaragod, which is closer to Mangalore, though she never travelled to Kasaragod during this time. Police investigators later concluded, ‘It is evident that the letters were merely signed (probably) by Akhila Ashokan but not written by her, after application of mind.’

On this, and other matters—for example, her marriage to Shafin Jahan—police reports say a network of SDPI activists took pains to conceal facts from them, according to the NIA report. Hadiya’s statement in court on December 21st on her marriage to Jahan on December 19th, for example, could not be corroborated with other findings. Jahan claimed that the two had got in touch with each other through the portal, but investigators found out that the two had not viewed each other’s profile on the website until December 31st, 2016, some 12 days after they had married. These facts emerged after Shafin filed a false affidavit in the court about how he met Hadiya.

During her stay in Salem, says the NIA report, Akhila increasingly gravitated towards Islam by observing Jaseena. The latter provided her with the support she needed as her religious beliefs transformed

In the weeks and the month preceding her appearance in the court, according to reports, a frantic search was conducted by Sainba and her husband to find a match for Hadiya. This, in the authorities’ version of events, was done to change the ‘facts of the case’ before it reached the court or before the police could find her. The idea, seen this way, was to present a fait accompli, leaving little that could be done once the facts were discovered.

ACTIVISTS, MEANWHILE, ARE fighting for what they see as the right of an adult educated woman to live a life in accordance with her conscience. Letters and memoranda have flooded the government and the state women’s commission. In the words of academic and activist J Devika, “It is not love jihad. We should use the term ‘judicial ghar waapasi to refer to this incident.” She also alleges that the High Court order is being misinterpreted. “There was nothing in the court order that directed Hadiya to stay with her parents, which indicated that she should be kept confined and isolated; there is nothing that prevents members of the public, especially public officials like elected members of the legislature or panchayat, from meeting her.”

“What should have remained a personal matter of choice has now become a statewide political issue. One doesn’t have to be a genius to understand who is going to gain politically, on both sides, from this campaign. They have successfully mainstreamed the conversion debate. RSS will be eternally grateful to PFI for this service. The next is to reap the dividend. Secular parties should be more forthcoming in taking them on and building counter- narratives,” said a social commentator.

One of the girls who tried to make contact with Hadiya at her home, Anusha Paul, a journalist working with a documentary production house in Delhi, has this story: “We reached there by around 11 am. The gate was closed and there were cops sitting inside the compound. We requested them to hand over some books and other gifts to Hadiya. We did not even ask permission to meet her, as we had little expectation of them letting us in. Hadiya’s father came out. He was furious and was not ready to accept the gifts. Meanwhile, Hadiya’s mother also came out and started scolding us. While talking to them ,we suddenly heard a loud cry. Hadiya was crying and shouting that she had been locked inside against her will. She might have understood that someone had come to meet her and was pleading for us to save her from house arrest. I was shocked and tried to get a glance of her through the bars of the gate. I saw a pair of eyes and hands raised behind the window of the house. She was wearing a hijab. Suddenly somebody dragged her from the window and her cry went feeble. Her father Ashokan, who was furious at this, rushed inside the house and closed the window.”

Observed the poet K Satchidanandan, “There are ways and ways of looking at the Akhila/ Hadiya incident. For me, here religion is not an issue, but I see three issues in it. One, the Constitutional Right of an Indian citizen to convert to religion of his or her choice, without external force, compulsion or bribery. Two, a woman’s right to marry a man of her choice. And three, an adult’s right to decide where he or she should stay. All three have been challenged here. The Court has infantilised the 24-year-old Akhila, treated her with patriarchal contempt, as ‘vulnerable’, frail and fickle, annulled a marriage she entered on her own volition and sent her back to her home that she hates. She is being tortured there and has been crying for help to the passersby, going by all her statements so far, including the latest given to [activist and author] Rahul Easwar and asked a government agency to probe the ‘love jihad’ angle! This is atrocious, to say the least, and completely against our Constitution and human rights.”

BRP Bhaskar, a veteran journalist and activist, believes that something needs to be done to improve the social fabric of the state. “Socially, Kerala has been on retreat for three or four decades. While the clout of caste forces stands reduced, that of religious forces has risen. This has resulted in a shrinking of the vast secular space that the Renaissance created. Political parties whose acts of omission and commission contributed to this development must take urgent steps to reverse the process. Fanatic religious elements need to be confronted boldly. Compromises with them for electoral gains will make the situation dangerous.”

That statement sums up the dilemma of Kerala. There is the issue of individual choice versus social sanction. But there is also the reality of organisational efforts to ‘facilitate’ people converting from one religion to another. In all this, we wait to hear what the woman in the eye of the storm has to say—openly, to us.

(With inputs from Delhi bureau)