ON May 24, Kerala High Court had declared the marriage of Shafin Jahan and Akhila alias Hadiya as null and void on the petition of the bride’s father. The father claimed that his daughter was forced to convert to Islam and marry a Muslim under the influence of the Islamic State. The petition alleged that the girl would be forcibly sent to Syria in order to work for the extremist Islamic outfit. In response, the Court nullified the marriage and the husband of the girl petitioned the Supreme Court. On August 16, the Court passed an order that the National Investigation Agency should probe the claims that Shafin Jahan had links with radical Islamic groups and that ‘love jihad’ was a part of a larger extremist conspiracy. Following this, the minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju claimed that there was a ‘pattern’ to ‘love jihad’ marriages and that the Supreme Court Order had ‘legitimised’ the claims that women were lured into conversion and marriage by radical extremist organisations.
Such a claim is not new, and follows a logic that has been commonly used by Hindu fundamentalists and their organisations to prevent inter-religious marriages in order to maintain the ‘purity’ of the Hindutva agenda. In its issue of August 1, 2016 the Organiser wrote that “December 11, 1999, was a black day for the Hindus of Kerala and Bharat as it was this day that Kerala’s renowned poet, short story writer and a great Krishna bhakt, Madhavikutty aka Kamala Das converted to Islam. She wore Purdah and said that she has embraced Islam. It was indeed a shock for the Malayalee community as she was one of the best writers of the state who was shortlisted for Nobel Prize in literature in the year 1984 and had written several short stories which had influenced the youth and the Keralite community. Kamala Das can be considered as one of the foremost victim of Love Jihad.” By branding Kamala Das as a victim, the Hindutva fundamentalists exposed their own bias. In the same article, they termed all inter-religious conversions by women between 2011 and 2015 as part of ‘love jihad’ or marriages linked to recruitment of women in the ISIS, thus linking all religious conversions to Islam with ‘terrorism’. This connection between the two has become part of a sustained campaign that the Hindu right wants to ingrain within the mass psyche and unleash a mass movement against inter-religious marriages, particularly between Hindus and Muslims. This is evident from a number of events held by the Hindu right after the assumption of power by the NDA government. Further, for the first time the BJP included ‘love jihad’ and conversions from Hinduism as its official agenda in August 2014, when it started its campaign in Uttar Pradesh. Two days after winning the elections in the state, the chief minister Yogi Adityanath set up moral policing squads by the name of ‘anti-Romeo squads’. These squads monitored ‘Romeos’ and informed their parents of their ‘anti-social and undesirable activities’, dictating that boys and girls have no right to be friends or falling in love without the permission of their parents. This social conservatism is based on the ‘purity’ of the family as the basis of the ‘purity of the religion’ and a paternalistic and patronising attitude towards the Modern Indian woman. For example the VHP recently declared that they would set up ‘dharma yoddhas’ to protect ‘Hindu girls’. This idea of ‘protection’ assumes that women have no right to decide their own future and that their parents and the larger community will determine their future.
The Kerala High Court judgement of May 24, annulling the marriage of Hadiya (as Akhila choses to identify herself) with Shafin has to be seen in the context of the attempts being whipped up by the Hindu fundamentalists to create a mass hysteria on ‘love jihad’. It is telling that the judgement starts with the following: “Ms Akhila is the only child of Sri Ashokan, the petitioner, and Smt Ponnamma. They both belong to the Hindu (Ezhava) community and hail from Vaikom in Kottayam district. Ms Akhila was therefore brought up in accordance with the beliefs and rituals of Hindu religion”. This introduction itself creates the basis for all the conclusions that the court reaches in the case. In the first place the court assumes that ‘Akhila’ is a practicing Hindu just like her parents and that she has got ‘brainwashed’ into accepting Islam. In fact in her own recorded statement (as admitted by the court), she says that she had given up Hindu rituals even when she was living at her parental home. This conclusion clearly indicates that any attempt by Akhila/Hadiya to chart out her own course is not acceptable to her parents (who filed the writ petition) or the court who is worried that a girl has dared to rebel against her parents. Thus the court states that “The question of faith and religion are matters of personal conviction and this court does not consider it necessary to interfere in such matters that are personal to Ms Akhila. However, what concerns this court is the decision of hers that, she does not want to live with her parents”. This conservative position accepts the parents logic that Akhil/Hadiya is not capable of deciding for herself since she is a “bad student” and has not “impressed” the court “as a person who is capable of taking a firm and independent decision on her own”. The patriarchal attitude of the court is further strengthened when it states that “A girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited in many ways. This court exercising parens patriae jurisdiction is concerned with the welfare of a girl of her age. The duty cast on this court to ensure the safety of at least the girls who are brought before it can be discharged only by ensuring that Ms Akhila is in safe hands”. In this case, the court concludes that only her parents can protect Akhila/Hadiya from the forces that are “behind” her actions.
This rather unfair conclusion is made the basis for vilifying Shafin Jahan, the person whom Akhila/Hadiya married on the December 19, 2016. The court is surprised at the marriage as it notes that Akhila/Hadiya seems to have been duped into marriage, ignoring the fact that she had registered herself on a matrimonial site in April 2016 itself. Further the court states that the girl’s father has expressed apprehensions that she will be misled into a fake marriage and transported outside the country. Her marriage to Shafin Jahan has proved that this is correct because he lives in Muscat and has been involved with the social media group of the Social Democratic Party of India (or the Popular Front). Further since “his posts show that he has radical inclinations” the worst fears of her parents could have been proven correct. Therefore the court directed the Kerala police to check the antecedents of Shafin Khan, but was unsatisfied with the reports, thus declaring the marriage null and void and granting custody of the 24 year old to her parents.
The entire tenor of the court judgement seems to be paternalistic and conservative in character often arguing from the point of view of ‘traditional’ Indian beliefs. For example, the judges refuse to interact with the girl saying that they do not deem it necessary to ascertain what she wants, thus betraying an anti-woman bias. Further while granting custody to the parents, the court uses a typical argument often echoed by right-wing social movements and says that “As per Indian tradition, the custody of an unmarried daughter is with the parents, until she is properly married. We consider it the duty of this court to ensure that a person under such a vulnerable state is not exposed to further danger....” The metaphors of both ‘tradition’ and ‘danger’ used by the judges of the Kerala High Court fit into the vocabulary of the Hindu right. For them all Hindu girls are in danger of being duped by radical Islamists who are controlling the ‘minds of young girls”. Like the Hindu fundamentalists, the court does not pose any questions to the parents and ask why did Hadiya/Akhila feel compelled to stay outside her parent’s house? Rather it assumes that she has no mind of her own and she can get duped easily. In this sense, the court judgement aims to restore the sanctity of the ‘traditional family’ which often curbs the freedom of their own daughters.
Seen in this light, the judgement seems to have been influenced by the hype generated by fundamentalist Hindu organisations as it often refers to the links between forced conversions and Muslim youths in Kerala colleges. Its logic is also derived from and feeds into the arguments that have been used by these organisations to polarise public opinion and even generate riot like situations in the name of ‘love jihad’. In doing so it violates the spirit of women’s movements which have been struggling for the freedom of young girls to decide their own future. Therefore, it will only strengthen the politics of communal polarisation which uses campaigns like ‘love jihad’ to target the minorities and prop up neo-conservative social ideas that have no place in an egalitarian modern society.