On 30 October, the Supreme Court directed that Hadiya, a 25-year-old Malayali woman whose conversion to Islam and choice of a partner who shared her faith is under judicial scrutiny, be brought before the court on 27 November. In August last year, Hadiya’s father Asokan had filed a petition in the Kerala High Court claiming that she had been forcibly converted to Islam. While the case was ongoing, Hadiya married a Muslim man named Shafin Jahan—her father challenged the marriage in the high court as well. In May 2017, in an extreme and unprecedented move, the court annulled her marriage and confined her to her father’s custody. Three months later, while hearing Jahan’s appeal against the high court’s decision, the Supreme Court directed the National Investigation Agency to conduct a probe into the marriage. Rather than remedying the violation of the two citizens’ rights immediately, the apex court chose to embark on an enquiry into the alleged radicalisation of young Hindu women converts in Kerala.
A few days before the latest Supreme Court hearing, Rahul Easwar, a right-wing-leaning activist, had released a video of Hadiya pleading to be freed from forced confinement to her father’s home. She states in the video that she may be “killed anytime—tomorrow or the day after” and that her father was “hitting and kicking” her. The Supreme Court acted deaf to her plea. Though the court observed that Hadiya had the right to choose her partner, by fixing 27 November as the date for her production in court, in effect, it allowed Hadiya’s father and the Hindutva anti-conversion forces in Kerala a whole month to apply greater pressure on her.
The Hadiya case has led to a divisive debate in Kerala on the question of individual choice, gender, and religious belonging. The response of the state government—led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—has been tepid at best. While the government remained silent through much of the debate on the case, in early October, it submitted before the Supreme Court that the state police could conduct the investigation, and that there was no need for an NIA probe. However, the state government also reportedly submitted a list of over 90 cases of “forced conversions” to the NIA for its probe. Meanwhile, the statement of a young Hindu woman, who said she was tortured at a reconversion centre in Kochi, notes that the Hindutva outfits that run the centre have made much of the fact that if a Hindu woman marries a man of another faith, even if she does not convert herself, her womb will carry his child. They imply that this is tantamount to the effects of adultery.
Tensions over intercommunity marriage and conversion are certainly not new in Kerala. But this throwback to a slave-society—in which the women are treated as the inalienable property of their fathers and the social groups to which they belong—is new. It is perhaps a sign that we are at the brink of rewriting the social contract that has undergirded Kerala’s model of communal harmony in the twentieth century. The contract that underlay this harmony was forged mainly by three communities—the Nairs, who had thrown off the traditional Shudra caste status of the pre-colonial and colonial Brahminical order; the Ezhava community, which overcame the practice of untouchability through trade and education in the colonial period; and the Syrian Christians who profited through colonial trade and new economic opportunities. The Muslims of Kerala, despite being an organised community by this time, were only partially included in this social order.
The Supreme Court’s response to the case is merely a continuation of the role that Kerala’s courts, as well as Islamophobic media and Hindutva outfits, have played in generating the “love jihad” discourse. “Love jihad” is widely understood as an exercise by a secret group of Muslim men (and women, according to some accounts), who are given material rewards to seduce, marry, and convert Hindu and Christian women. In other cases in Kerala, too, the courts have sent the women to their parents’ custody, even when they were majors and adults, allowing time for the families to pressure the women into leaving their chosen partners.