The case in Kerala is not about religion. It is about a woman whose basic rights are being curtailed by the courts, her parents and self-styled protectors.
The case in Kerala around Hadiya – a woman formerly named Akhila who converted from Hinduism to Islam of her own will and married Shafin Jahan, a Muslim – has taken a new turn with the revelations made by Gopal Menon, a well known social activist and documentary filmmaker. He has claimed in a recent interview that the 25-year-old woman – who was placed in the custody of her parents by the high court of Kerala following a case filed by her father, K.M. Ashokan – is being regularly sedated so that she does not appear in the Supreme Court and repeat her statement that her conversion and marriage were voluntary and she was in no way forced into them. Jahan has filed an appeal against the Kerala high court’s decision to annul their marriage in the Supreme Court.
A video that shows Hadiya saying that she is scared for her safety and being beaten by her father has also surfaced, released by Rahul Easwar and shot on August 17. “You need to get me out. I will be killed anytime, tomorrow or the day after, I am sure. I know my father is getting angry. When I walk, he is hitting and kicking me,” she says in the video. Easwar did not reveal who Hadiya was fearing when she said she will be killed.
It could also be, according to Menon, that her parents will argue that she has been on treatment (with the sedatives) for her mental health. The activist also claimed that he has seen the footage currently with Easwar – who was allowed to visit Hadiya at home some time ago – where she is being tortured by her father. He also has an audiotape where Hadiya’s mother, Ponnamma, a devout Hindu by all reports, tells him that her husband is planning to get the father of the girl who helped in her conversion murdered with the help of a Hindu organisation. This conversation was recorded before Hadiya was put under what has been equated with ‘house arrest’: her unwilling confinement in her parent’s house, ‘Devi Kripa’, where she is being guarded by six policemen. The high court, when declaring her marriage with Jahan ‘null and void’ and sending her to her parent’s home, directed the government to provide protection to ‘Akhila’ and her parents. This security checks the vehicles that arrive at the house and stop people from meeting Hadiya. This is beside the unofficial ‘security’ provided by RSS men in the area, who decide who should be allowed to meet Hadiya.
This case has several implications and raises important questions about an adult woman’s basic, constitutionally-sanctioned right to choose her faith and her partner, and a woman’s agency in general, the Kerala high court’s dubious right to declare two adults’ willing marriage null and void, and its declared assumption that parents are the natural custodians of their children who cannot wed without parental involvement; the Supreme Court’s strange direction to the National Investigative Agency to make an inquiry into the whole affair from the angle of ‘love jihad’, a bogey that the police and even BJP and RSS leaders have said is unconfirmed (the Kerala government has questioned the need for such an inquiry); the continuous involvement of the RSS from the very beginning of the case; not allowing people from the media, women’s organisations and even the Kerala Woman’s Commission – which has now requested the Supreme Court for permission to visit Hadiya – to investigate the situation or talk to Hadiya; and many more.
What is to be noted here first is that Hadiya has been consistent. In both her statement in the high court and the interview to Easwar, she has talked about how her choice of faith and partner were both voluntary. She grew up in a village – TV Puram in the Kottayam district of Kerala – where there is hardly any Muslim presence. By her own statement, she was impressed by the character and religious devotion of two Muslim sisters – Jaseena and Haseena – who she befriended while she was doing a DHMS course in Salem, Tamil Nadu. She then decided to learn more about Islam and began living according to its practices in 2015, before expressing her desire to formally convert and seeking her friends’ help in realising her desire. She had herself registered on the website ‘nikah.com’, where she met Jahan. His family too took a liking to the bride.
Second, her father and the RSS, which he seems to have excessively depended on in order to get custody of his adult daughter, have been following the same path and repeating the same arguments: that this is a case of love-jihad and Akhila was forced to convert, that Jahan is connected to the Popular Front and that organisation is behind the conversion, that she is soon to be sent abroad to support ISIS. The fact is that the Popular Front – not the entire organisation, but a woman, Sainaba, associated with it – appears on the scene only when Hadiya is already wearing the Islamic dress, following its ways and making efforts to formalise her conversion – which she could not do without an affidavit from a notary. The organisation had no role in her marriage.
Third, the high court’s attitude has been quite obscurantist and its judgement clearly biased: it seems to have imbibed the incipient Islamophobia prevalent in a section of Kerala society, never even considered Hadiya’s own stand on the issue, refused to imagine a woman has her own will and volition, and decided that parents are the best custodians of their (adult) children, even though families in many cases have stood against children’s wish, especially in marriage.
Fourth, a majority of commentators seem to be blind to the fact that inter-religious marriages are no longer exceptional in Kerala, whether or not one partner converts. They have been on the rise, in proportion to the growth of opportunities for socialisation and friendship, especially due to the rise in women’s education and employment in Kerala. This is a sign of the progress of a society, and not the opposite as regressive thinkers seem to assume.
The essential issue here is not one of religion at all, even though both Hindu and Muslim extremists seem to think it is. It is one of woman’s freedom and agency, and more generally of human rights. What is urgently needed is the intervention of various agencies – rights activists, women’s organisations, lawyers’ collectives, the medical community and concerned government agencies – so that Hadiya’s confinement is put an end to, she is both physically and mentally safe, and her rights as an individual are given their due.
K. Satchidanandan, one of the founders of the Indian Writers’ Forum, is a poet, bilingual critic, translator, editor and rights activist.