R Krishnakumar, Thiruvananthapuram, DH News Service, Aug 22 2017, 23:10 IST
When the Kerala High Court annulled the marriage of 24-year-old Hadiya — Akhila Ashokan, before she converted to Islam — to Shefin Jahan (27), it called the marriage a “sham”. In the concluding portions of their May 24 order, Judges K Surendra Mohan and K Abraham Mathew observed: “Her marriage being the most important decision in her life, can also be taken only with the active involvement of her parents”.
The observations meet a response in a recent video shot by activist Rahul Easwar at Hadiya’s home. In the video, Hadiya, now in the custody of her parents, interrupts her tearful mother Ponnamma and asks, “Is keeping me like this enough? Is this going to be my life?”
Between the Kerala HC order and Hadiya’s pleas on Easwar’s video came an important Supreme Court order. The apex court, on August 16, directed the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to probe the case, under the guidance of retired Supreme Court judge R V Raveendran.
The NIA will probe the December 19, 2016 wedding for possible links to “love jihad”, an expression used by right-wing groups to describe what they call organised efforts to convert Hindu women to Islam. As the idea of individual rights runs into conflicting legal interpretations, the argument for “national interests” has brought its own emotions to the mix.
The Supreme Court’s decision to trace out the case through investigation by a top counter-terror agency has raised concern among rights activists and left legal experts disconcerted. Their arguments are pegged to Hadiya’s right to choose her faith and her life partner, irrespective of his antecedents.
But the NIA probe assumes importance when viewed against other recent cases of religious conversion, under more disquieting circumstances. Nimisha, a Hindu girl from Thiruvananthapuram, and Merin Jacob, a Christian from Ernakulam, had converted to Islam before marrying brothers Isa and Yahya respectively. Isa and Yahya, and their wives, were among the 20-odd people who went missing from Kasaragod and Palakkad districts in mid-2016, to join the Islamic State (IS).
The brothers, from Palakkad, had themselves converted to Islam from Christianity. In April this year, relatives of other IS recruits received a social media message that Yahya, alias Bestin Vincent, was killed in Afghanistan. The group that went missing from Kerala was last reported as stationed in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan.
Shefin Jahan’s links with the Social Democratic Party of India, the political wing of radical organisation Popular Front of India, are likely to set the tone for the NIA probe. The Kerala HC, in its order, had also observed that some of Shefin’s Facebook posts showed his “radical inclination.”
Hadiya, while pursuing a course in Homeopathic Medicine at a private college in Salem, became attracted to the tenets of Islam, apparently under the influence of her friends Jaseena and Faseena, and their father Aboobacker. According to K M Ashokan, Hadiya’s father, she was “taken away” from Salem by Aboobacker and his daughters on January 6, 2016. Hadiya’s wedding to Shefin, held according to Muslim rites, happened almost a year later. Hadiya has stated that she got acquainted with Shefin through a matrimonial site.
In search of truth
The NIA will be on the trail of the events that led to their wedding; the HC said it was “seriously perturbed” by the marriage, organised in a hurried manner without informing the court while it was still hearing the case. The agency is also set to probe Ashokan’s contention that Hadiya’s conversion to Islam at Sathya Sarani, an educational and charitable trust in Malappuram, was “forced.” On its website, the trust lists “propagation of Islam among non-Muslims” as one of its objectives.
Noted writer and social commentator Prof M N Karassery says there are technical and legal complications attached to the case that cannot be addressed with blanket arguments based on citizens’ rights. “I believe that the individual and his or her rights are of prime importance, but here, the issue is not about a romantic relationship, it’s about religious conversion. There is propaganda outside Kerala about mass conversions to Islam happening here. These allegations come without any solid evidence to back them. If a probe helps to bring out the real picture, we should welcome it,” he says.
The HC was severely critical of the Deputy Superintendent of Police in Perinthalmanna for having failed to take up a proper investigation on Ashokan’s January 2016 complaint that his daughter had gone missing. It said the investigation did not address the seriousness of “widespread allegations of forcible conversion” and the “national interest” that was at stake. The court observed that the investigating officer was either incompetent or was “influenced and subjugated to a studied inaction.”
Former BJP state president and senior lawyer P S Sreedharan Pillai says the court’s observations on the investigation are significant. He reckons that a high-level probe would help unearth any design of organised religious conversions. “A change in faith cannot be forced upon or brought about through fraudulent ways. There is no restriction on choosing one’s religion but when such religious conversions are not isolated, and if they involve forces that work against the country, they need to be investigated,” says Pillai.
The propaganda Prof Karassery alluded to has gathered steam since the case of IS recruitment in Kasaragod and Palakkad was reported. Union Minister of State for Home Hansraj Ahir recently talked about a centre in Malappuram where about 1,000 people are converted to Islam every month. Karassery says “irresponsible” statements don’t help. “I’m not saying conversions don’t happen but when you are talking such big numbers, there should be some evidence. When you say 1,000 people, there should be proof for at least 100. Who are these people? Which panchayats are they from?” he asks.
Those questions may be a good place to start. Those who speak for Hadiya’s rights, meanwhile, see hope in one line in the SC order – it says the court will hear her before taking its final decision.