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How ‘Hadiya case’ is testing the limits of civil rights of women in Kerala

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-09-2017 Nidheesh M.K.

Bengaluru: “Save me. They are beating me,” Hadiya, a 24-year old woman wailed from inside her parents’ house in Kerala’s Kottayam district on 30 August, claims six women activists who were bringing her some presents, but were stopped by policemen guarding the gate.

When Rahul Easwar, another activist famous for supporting Hindutva causes, entered the house two weeks ago and made a video of his tour inside, Hadiya was heard asking her mother in a pained tone, “Is this how I should live? Is this my life?”

When does a marriage stop being just a marriage and becomes a communal issue? To what extent can the state intervene, on behalf of the larger society, if someone is choosing a partner from another religion? How much liberty is allowed for someone being investigated for being allegedly forcefully converted to another faith?

The answers may hold the key to understanding why there is much surveillance and attention on the life of this homeopathy student, born as Akhila Ashokan, but converted to Islam in September, 2015, and chose the name Aasiya first and Hadiya later.

Hadiya’s conversion and her marriage in December last year to Shafin Jahan was annulled by Kerala high court on 25 May 2017, after her father K.M. Ashokan petitioned that his daughter was being lured into a dubious plan to send her to Syria to join terror outfits like the Islamic State. On 16 August, while hearing a plea by the husband to overturn the high court judgement, the Supreme Court asked National Investigation Agency to investigate the case and submit a report before it gives a final order.

As the case drags on, Hadiya remains under severe confinement. From last August when Ashokan moved High Court to May 2017, she was put up at a hostel as part of judicial custody, and after that, she was directed to go home under police protection, both under court orders. In appeals to the court during this period, she claims to have been put under restrictions against her wishes and barred from interacting with people, something that has riled rights activists.

The facts pertaining to the case are much disputed. While Hadiya insists she chose to convert and marry as per her own will, her family argues she is the victim of a so-called Love Jihad, where Hindu women are seduced, married and converted by Muslim men.

Such accusations are not new to Kerala. After much fuss about a case where Muslim men were accused of abduction and conversion of a Hindu woman in 2009, the Kerala high court had asked then Director General of Police Jacob Punnoose to investigate and file a report. The report found no concrete evidence of any such dubious activity. When such news reports reappeared recently, current Director General of Police Loknath Behra issued a statement on 26 August saying “till now, we don’t have any data to confirm whether the so called Love Jihad is prevalent in Kerala.” The SC itself, while hearing the Hadiya case, refused to use the term, as it is still in the realm of allegations.

Ironically, in Hadiya’s case, the conversion is not strictly related to love. She claims to have converted to Islam in early 2016, long before her marriage in December 2016. How did the Hadiya case blow up then?

According to political analyst J. Prabhash, it is a classic case of one’s life taken over by the larger political currents of the day. It comes at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are looking to carve its own electoral niche in Kerala. According to a lawyer for one of the parties at the high court, who did not wish to be named, the RSS is working closely with Ashokan to fight the case legally. They are also aided by recent media reports that about 20 youths from Kerala including women who have converted to Islam have gone missing and may have joined the Islamic State in Syria and Afghanistan and perhaps got killed.

Far-right Muslim outfits are also in the game. Jahan is an active worker and ran the social media page of Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political arm of a far-right Islamist outfit Popular Front of India. Hadiya’s father Ashokan says Jahan married his daughter only to give her conversion a legal status. The marriage was also conducted without informing the high court, when Hadiya was in court custody (the court had allowed her to stay with her friend Zainaba and study at an Islamic institution ‘Sathya Sarani’. Hadiya sought the help of Zainaba and Sathya Sarani to post an advertisement in an Islamic matrimony website for getting married) which the court saw as a “subterfuge”.

“Both BJP and RSS have been going on claiming Love Jihad is a reality (for many years), trying to create a narrative and make advantage out of it, and now they have found a face,” said Prabhash, who is also a professor of political science at the University of Kerala. “The SDPI, perhaps, played into their hands.”

“Will this case have evoked the same reaction if it was a man instead of Hadiya? Or if this was happening before the recent media reports of ISIS recruits from Kerala? I don’t think so,” he said.

“In any case, one basic question we have to answer is, to what extent can the freedom of an individual, especially of a woman, be curtailed on behalf of the larger society.”

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