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Muslim converts hounded in India, accused of serving Daesh

29th Mar 2018
Muslim converts hounded in India, accused of serving Daesh

(Photo: Free Hadiya Movement)

Sajeda Haider

The Supreme Court of India has reunited a young Muslim couple who were forcibly separated by the bride’s father, egged on by far-right anti-Muslim groups who told him that unless he stopped them, his daughter would be shipped off to Syria to serve Isis (Daesh) soldiers.

India’s top court told 25-year-old Muslim convert Hadiya that she and her husband Shefin Jahan, 27, could live as husband and wife and were free to pursue their future in accordance with the law, setting aside a lower Kerala High Court order which annulled their marriage in May 2017.

For the last 10 months, Hadiya and Shefin Jahan have had to fight a bizarre and high-profile battle to win the right to live together like any married couple, having done absolutely nothing wrong. The Hadiya case had become fodder for far-right groups like the RSS, the ideological head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in their campaign against what they call ‘love-jihad’. This is a term coined by the RSS to describe what they see as a systematic campaign unleashed by Muslims boys seducing ‘unsuspecting Hindu girls, converting them to Islam, marrying them and then making them have lots of children so as to increase the Muslim population and change the demographics of the country’.

In the last couple of years, this conspiracy theory has got worse with a Daesh angle being added, despite the fact that there is not a shred of empirical evidence to bear out either ‘love-jihad’ or that Hindu girls are being shipped off to Syria to service Daesh soldiers. In fact, out of the 172 million-strong Muslim population in India, only a handful of youths have succumbed to the Daesh charms and fought with the terrorist organisation. Considering the attacks, atrocities and discrimination being heaped on the minority community in the last four years by the right-wing nationalist BJP Government, it is surprising that more youths have not joined terror groups feel some analysts.

Hadiya was born K M Akhila, the only child of an atheist father and staunch Hindu mother, in Kottayam district of the southern state of Kerala. Her father K M Ashokan, a retired army man, had allowed his wife Ponnamma to bring up Akhila as a Hindu. In August 2010, when Akhila was 18 she left home to study homoeopathy at the Sivaraj Homeopathy Medical College and Research Institute in Salem, Tamil Nadu, some 400km away. Here she bonded with four other students who were from Kerala too – three Hindu and one Muslim girl Jaseela Aboobacker. Akhila began watching Jaseela and her younger sister Faseena offering salat (prayers) and started to show an interest in Islam. “We thought she was an atheist like her father. When our Hindu roommates went to a temple, they would have to coerce Akhila to come along”, said Jaseela.

Soon Akhila borrowed a Qur’an in Malayalam, her mother tongue, from Jaseela to read and became so impressed by it that she started posting verses from it on Facebook. During Ramadan, she started fasting and celebrating Eid al-Fitr.

Through Facebook, Akhila became close to a couple Sherin Shahana and Fazal Musthafa, who worked in a mosque in Mangaluru. Akhila told the couple about her desire to convert to Islam and on September 10, 2015, they came to Kochi and helped her get an affidavit attested by an advocate saying she was living as a Muslim of her own free will and wanted to take on the name of Aasiya.

In India, implementation of religious conversion laws has become very strict ever since the BJP has come to power. They claim that Hindus are converted to Islam and Christianity either by force or offering benefits like money or food and this is illegal according to Anti-Conversion Laws. Realising this Akhila had signed the affidavit so that no one could be accused of forcibly converting her. However, she did not tell her parents or relatives about her conversion.

On January 1, 2016, Akhila left home ostensibly to go to her college in Salem but instead went to her friend Jaseela’s home in Malappuram, where she told them that she wished to convert to Islam.

Jaseela’s father Aboobacker took her to an advocate where she again attested a second affidavit saying she was embracing Islam of her own will. On Akhila’s insistence to learn more about Islam, Aboobacker after being refused by two Islamic institutes took her to Sathya Sarani, the only institute in Kerala that offers a two-month residential programme for new converts to Islam. However, Sathya Sarani refused to admit her for want of proper documents, and so Akhila returned home with Aboobacker.

A few days later Akhila arrived at her college wearing a headscarf and caused quite a stir. One of her friends called her father Ashokan and he began to contact his daughter. Instead of returning home, Akhila went to Aboobacker’s house for shelter. “I informed Ashokan that his daughter wanted to convert. I told him I would accompany her home. But he told me he would pick her up from my house,” said Aboobacker.

But before Ashokan could reach Akhila, members of Sathya Sarani accompanied by AS Zainaba, President of the National Women’s Front came and took her with them. Ashokan registered a case at a local police station and also moved a habeas corpus petition in the High Court. Zainaba took Akhila to the High Court where she convinced the court that she was with Zainaba of her own free will and wished to convert to Islam. The Court allowed Akhila to stay with Zainaba and also let her attend the Islamic course at Sathya Sarani. It was here that her name was changed from Akhila to Hadiya.

A few months later Hadiya approached Zainaba saying she wished to marry a Muslim boy, and so Zainaba registered her name on a matrimonial site. Ashokan who had reconciled to his daughter’s conversion, became worried because he had heard ‘stories’ (put out mostly by right-wing Hindu groups like the RSS) of Kerala Muslims joining the Daesh along with their wives. He told Hadiya about his fears but she vowed that she would not go anywhere.

A worried Ashokan, under the influence of Hindu neighbours and relatives and egged on by far-right groups, filed a writ petition in the High Court on August 16, 2016, alleging that there was a move to take his daughter out of India. Hadiya was brought before the Court on August 22 and she pleaded that she was not going anywhere and she didn’t even have a passport. Hadiya refused to go home with her parents and said she wanted to stay with Zainaba, which the court eventually allowed.

Shefin Jahan, a graduate in Islamic Studies, and working as a manager with a firm in Muscat since January 2015, was also registered on the same matrimonial website as Hadiya. Shefin came to Kerala in November 2016 on two-month leave and since he had some links with the trust that ran Sathya Sarani, his marriage was arranged with Hadiya. On December 19, the two were married at Zainaba’s house in Malappuram. “The marriage was not fake. I invited Ashokan, he didn’t turn up. My friends and relatives came and we registered the marriage at the local panchayat”, says Shefin.

Two days after their nikah, Hadiya returned to court with Shefin, but the court sent Hadiya to a hostel and ordered Shefin not to have any contact with her. They weren’t allowed to talk at subsequent hearings and on May 24, 2017, the High Court actually annulled the marriage terming it a case of “love-jihad”. It also ordered a probe arguing that “a girl aged 24 is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited in many ways”, and gave her into the custody of her parents.

The prosecution made out a case that Hadiya had been brainwashed and coerced into becoming a Muslim by the Sathya Sarani and her marriage was quickly arranged with Shefin so that he could take her away to Syria. They also accused Shefin of having terrorist links because of his tentative association with the Popular Front of India (PFI), a radical Muslim group during his university days.

Shefin moved the Supreme Court appealing against the High Court’s actions of nullifying his marriage and urging it to reunite him with his wife. Meanwhile, Hadiya was kept virtually under house arrest by her parents, not allowed meet anyone or talk to anyone but her immediate family. During the few times that she was brought to court, she was not allowed to speak to Shefin but the feisty girl shouted to the media who got close to her that she was a Muslim of her own free will and wanted to be reunited with her husband.

In August 2017, the Supreme Court ordered a probe by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) as to whether the Hadiya case was an isolated one or if there was a pattern to such conversions and marriages, resembling the ‘love-jihad’ the RSS was propagating.

After six months of being in her parents’ custody, the Supreme Court freed Hadiya but sent her to college to pursue her studies, even though she pleaded to go with her husband. Finally, on March 8, 2018, the apex court set aside the High Court’s order saying it should not have annulled their marriage and allowed Hadiya to live with Shefin.

However, the couple’s woes are still not over. The NIA is continuing with its probe, and according to Ashokan, it was convinced that Shefin was a ‘terrorist’. Ashokan has said he will continue his legal battle to get his daughter back and will file a review petition in the Supreme Court.

The NIA is concentrating on Kerala to prove love-jihad as around 50%  of the state’s 33 million people practice Islam and Christianity. The Kerala state elections are normally won either by the Congress or the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the BJP is very keen to get a foothold in an area which has eluded it till date. The RSS and BJP project it as a potential hotbed of Daesh recruitment and are using ‘love-jihad’ to divide the local population into religious lines and make Hindus fear their Muslim copatriots. Local police and NIA claim 100 people from Kerala have joined Daesh in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The NIA, which is under the control of the Central BJP Government, started probing love-jihad in Kerala in 2015 and identified 89 cases which they argued fitted the allegations. They claim that out of these they have found 9 cases of marriages planned by people with links to Daesh. The NIA intends to place these 9 cases before the Supreme Court. The Hadiya

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