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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Couple separated as Indian authorities look into 'love jihad' conspiracy

Supreme court puts intelligence agency on the case of woman who converted to Islam and married a Muslim man

India's supreme court has outraged women's and rights activists by ordering an investigation into the marriage of a woman who says she converted to Islam and married a Muslim man of her own free will. Altaf Qadri / AP Photo
India's supreme court has outraged women's and rights activists by ordering an investigation into the marriage of a woman who says she converted to Islam and married a Muslim man of her own free will. Altaf Qadri / AP Photo

A state agency in India set up to investigate terrorist strikes, hijacking incidents and attacks on nuclear facilities is now examining something altogether different: a marriage between two consenting adults.

India’s supreme court has ordered the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to determine if there was a “conspiracy” behind a Kerala woman’s conversion to Islam and her subsequent marriage to a Muslim man.

The court’s order on August 16 was greeted with anxiety and criticism — both for ignoring the rights and freedoms of the married couple, and for riding on the Hindu nationalist trope of “love jihad”, in which Muslim men allegedly co-opt Hindu women into their religion through romantic relationships and marriage.

A final verdict has not yet been passed. “We want inputs from all sides before we take a final decision,” JS Khehar, India’s chief justice, said when he ordered the NIA investigation.

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But the court has yet to speak to Hadiya Shefin herself. A 24-year-old woman who was formerly named Akhila Ashokan, Ms Shefin converted to Islam three years ago while studying at a medical college in Salem, in the state of Tamil Nadu, after learning about the religion from a classmate.

At the time, Ms Shefin’s father filed a petition in the Kerala high court, claiming that his daughter had been converted against her will. Although the court rejected the petition, arguing that there was no evidence of coercion, it treated matters differently when Ms Shefin met and married the man who is now her husband, Shefin Jahan. The marriage took place last December.

Following his daughter's marriage, Ms Shefin's father filed another petition which said she was being “radicalised” by shadowy Islamic groups with terrorist links. This time around his petition received the high court’s attention. In May, the court annulled the marriage, calling it “of no consequence in the eye of the law” and an instance of “love jihad”.

Mr Jahan was never called to testify, while Ms Shefin declared in court that both her conversion to Islam and her marriage were voluntary. Despite this, she was directed to return to live with her parents — an order she had to comply with or risk being in contempt of court.

The case escalated to the supreme court in early July when Mr Jahan filed his own petition, arguing that the lower court’s order was “an insult to the independence of women of India”.

“[The order] completely takes away their right to think for themselves and brands them as persons who are weak and unable to think and make decisions for themselves,” he said.

Since May, when Ms Shefin was ordered back to her parents’ home, she has had little contact with the outside world.

In his petition, Mr Jahan said his letters to Ms Shefin remained unanswered and that his wife was being “illegally confined”.

Following a preliminary examination of the case papers, the NIA’s counsel told the supreme court that the organisation involved in Ms Shefin’s conversion — the Therbiyatul Islam Sabha in the Keralan city of Kozhikode — had come under suspicion in a previous instance of a similar conversion.

“In both, the organisation was involved in getting the women married,” said Maninder Singh, India’s additional solicitor general, who was representing the NIA. “The organisation perhaps has some links with SIMI [Students Islamic Movement of India, a group banned for terrorist activities].”

“The pattern appears that girls leave homes due to differences of opinion with family, and somebody volunteers to give them shelter, and this requires investigation,” Mr Singh added.

But Aruna Kashyap, a lawyer with the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch in India, said the supreme court’s instructions to the NIA has only “infantilised an adult woman”.

“The tremendous pressure and often violence used by families and communities to control adult women’s agency is an open secret — and the pressure often increases when women choose someone outside their religion, caste, or class,” Ms Kashyap told The National.

She said she had never heard of a previous instance in which an agency like the NIA has been asked to probe the details of a domestic arrangement.

“But there are numerous instances where inter-religious or inter-caste couples seek police and court intervention, often asking for protection because they fear forcible separation, illegal confinement, or other violence.”

Ms Kashyap also criticised the framing of Ms Shefin’s case as an example of “love jihad”.

Despite repeated investigations in various states finding no evidence of an organised campaign to convert Hindu women through marriage, “love jihad” remains a rallying call for the Hindu right. The call has been particularly strident since 2014, when prime minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power.

Pamphlets outlining the dangers of “love jihad” have been circulated at Hindu weddings and festivals. Gangs of vigilantes purporting to rescue Hindu women from their Muslim partners have targeted couples in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

In bracketing Ms Shefin’s marriage with this false phenomenon of “love jihad”, Ms Kashyap said, the judiciary “has effectively disregarded an adult woman's consent to marriage, sidelined her in the legal process, substituted her voice with that of her parents, and opened the doors for a dangerous and violent control of adult women's lives”.

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