It’s astounding that an adult woman has been denied the right to choose her faith and partner. This is contrary to every guarantee in the Constitution
Twenty-four-year-old Hadiya (in red) at the Supreme Court, New Delhi, India, November 27, 2017(Vipin Kumar/HT)
This article was first published in The Hindustan Times on 07th December, 2017
Akhila Ashokan, a woman from Kerala, while studying homeopathy, felt drawn to Islamic teachings after she shared an apartment with two Muslim students. She heard and discussed Islamic teachings with them, and in time she resolved to convert to Islam, changing her name to Hadiya.
She created a stir when she returned to college wearing a headscarf. Her enraged father, KM Ashokan, an ex-servicemen, commanded her to return home. She refused, moving in instead with a Muslim girlfriend. Ashokan filed a habeas corpus petition with the Kerala High Court alleging that his daughter’s conversion was part of a well-oiled conspiracy to target innocent women and recruit them to the Islamic State.
Hadiya refused again to return to her father, and the court directed that she should not stay with her Muslim girlfriend and be sent instead to a women’s hostel.
She then decided to get married. On a Muslin matrimonial site she met 27-year-old Shafin Jahan employed in Muscat. When they both consented to this marriage, she was 24 years old. They invited Hadiya’s parents to the wedding, but they refused. Ashokan instead again approached the high court, charging that this was a conspiracy to move her out of India.
Two days after her wedding, Hadiya appeared in court with her husband, affirming that she had married according to her wishes and free will. She appealed that her decisions should be respected. The Kerala High Court refused, and instead sent her back to the women’s hostel in Kochi. It prohibited her to meet her husband, who had to leave his job in Muscat as the case stretched on.
The high court asked the Kerala Police to investigate the matter to see if her conversion and wedding had any terror links. The police reported that it could find no connection of Shafin with any criminal activity (except one complaint connected with student politics), let alone terrorist endeavours.
Despite this, the Kerala High Court annulled her marriage. It observed, ‘A girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited in many ways’. It therefore awarded custody of this adult woman to her father. Her marriage, the judge maintained, ‘is a sham and is of no consequence in the eye of law. Her husband has no authority to act as the guardian.’
It referred to Hadiya in its judgment only as Akhila. It refused to recognise the agency of an adult woman, and maintained that her choice of marriage had no legal weight because her parents had not consented to it. It awarded the custody of the adult woman to her father, giving credence to the communally-charged conspiracy theory of ‘love jihad’.
Shafin tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with Hadiya. Her father confined her to his home and did not allow her to step out or meet anyone. Policemen watched her every move. Shafin appealed to the Supreme Court, and the matter was heard by a bench which included Chief Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar. The apex court gave her no relief, and instead directed an investigation by the National Investigation Agency. ‘The NIA’s involvement is necessary to ascertain if this is really an isolated case or is there something more… something wider…,’ the bench said. The chief justice referred to the Internet game, Blue Whale Challenge, to elaborate his apprehension that ‘such things can drive people to do anything’.
The NIA claimed that Hadiya’s conversion and marriage was not an isolated case, but part of a growing pattern of converting women from Hinduism to Islam as a means to recruiting them for terror crimes in Islamic State. Asking India’s top counter-terror investigation agency to enquire into the voluntary conversion to Islam by an adult woman and her subsequent marriage to a man against whom the police has found no evidence of any criminal or terror connections, smacks of astounding and whimsical prejudice on the part of many of those concerned.
The Supreme Court in its latest hearing has freed Hadiya from her father’s custody, but has not restored her marriage, not upheld her right to choose her religion and partner, and allowed investigations to continue into whether her conversion to Islam was linked to terrorism.