By Rahul Bhatia,
In 2011, when Akhila Ashokan was eighteen, she left her home in T. V. Puram, a village in Kerala, for college in Salem, a busy town seven hours to the east. Her father, K. M. Ashokan, was an ex-military man; her mother, Ponnamma, a practicing Hindu. In Salem, Akhila studied homeopathy, boarding with five women, including two Muslim sisters, Jaseena and Faseena, with whom she studied, cooked, and talked. Akhila watched them pray. Soon after—it is unclear when, exactly—Akhila started to read books and watch videos that helped her understand Islam. Feeling the stirrings of a new faith, she began to pray. In 2015, she decided to call herself Aasiya.
To her father, Akhila seemed a changed person in November, 2015, when she returned home for a funeral. She was quiet and reserved, reluctant to join in the rituals. After the funeral, Aasiya resolved to declare her new faith, and returned to school wearing a hijab. Her mother, when she heard of the conversion, told Aasiya that her father had broken his leg and asked her to come home to see him. But Aasiya, wise to the extravagant emotional blackmail of Indian parents, refused. She began a residential program for new converts at Sathya Sarani, a religious institute in Kerala; took yet another name, Hadiya; and registered a profile on waytonikah.com, a Muslim matrimonial site, where she noticed a man, bearded and lean, who worked at a pharmacy in Muscat, Oman. Shafin Jahan played goalkeeper for the F.C. Kerala soccer team, had a sweet smile, quoted Shakespeare, and hashtagged all his posts on Instagram. She met him, and then his family. Jahan’s Instagram went from pictures of food and football to photos of open skies and sunsets.
Even before Hadiya and Jahan got married, last December, Ashokan had taken his concerns to court, arguing that the people behind his daughter’s conversion had “unlimited resources in finances as well as manpower” and were enabling “illegal and forceful conversions.” His counsel argued that Hadiya, then twenty-four, was in “a vulnerable position from which she is necessary [sic] to be rescued and handed over to the petitioner.” Ashokan was convinced that Jahan, who had ties to the radical-Muslim Popular Front of India political party, was sent to disappear his daughter, and was backed by a shadowy organization with links to the Islamic State. (“I can’t have a terrorist in my family,” he said.) The judgment from the Kerala High Court, which came in the last week of May this year, sided with Ashokan. “In the first place, it is not normal for a young girl in her early 20s, pursuing a professional course, to abandon her studies and to set out in pursuit of learning an alien faith and religion,” the judges wrote. They were clearly unimpressed by Hadiya, a “gullible” and “ordinary girl of moderate intellectual capacity,” who had “apparently memorized” Arabic verses. Hadiya’s five-month marriage to Jahan was annulled; Hadiya was put in the care of her parents.
This past August, I looked up at a mute television tuned to the news and read the headline “Kerala girl denies forced conversion.” Onscreen, a policewoman stood beside a young woman wearing a red floral-print headscarf at the doorway of a home with beige walls and bars on the windows. The young woman seemed to be venting to another, older woman—her mother, I realized—who looked as frustrated as her daughter looked distraught. By that time, Hadiya had been kept at her parents’ house for three months, and was not allowed to leave.
When a charged video clip drops into the lap of India’s cash-strapped news channels, its echo is heard for days. In short order, Hadiya became India’s top story: everyone wanted to save a woman who showed no signs of wanting to be saved. In August, the National Investigation Agency, the Indian government’s top antiterrorism organization, began investigating Hadiya’s conversion and marriage. One news channel, Republic, said that more than twenty-five thousand tweets had shared a link to an investigation it had conducted into “love jihad,” and the same phrase.
Fears around “love jihad,” a supposed form of religious warfare by which Muslim men lure Hindu women away from the faith, have circulated in one form or another in India for more than a century. According to Charu Gupta, a history professor at Delhi University who has written extensively about Hindu-Muslim marriages in India, Muslim rulers were frequently portrayed as decadent manipulators in the popular literature of the late nineteenth century. “In the nineteen-twenties, it went from rulers to all Muslims,” she told me. “They were called abductions then. Even elopements were seen as abductions.” These abductions effectively provided “one of the glues for Hindu unity” in a country divided by caste. Such fears have increased since 2009, with the emergence of Hindu nationalists as a dominant political force in India. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, came to power promising development and freedom from corruption. In the past year, there have been selective bans—on films that are deemed to be sacrilegious, and on eating beef—while extremist mobs run wild. Modi has used Twitter to respond quickly to tragedies in other parts of the world, but so rarely talks about the religious eruptions in the country he governs, such as the lynchings of Muslims in B.J.P.-ruled states, that his merely acknowledging them makes news.
It was during this year of the almost cheerful dismantling of law and order that the story of Hadiya became the soap opera we all watched. After the High Court’s ruling, one headline read, “isis Recruitment? Kerala HC Cancels Marriage Between Hindu Girl, Muslim Man.” The Times of India ran with “Kerala HC Cancels Marriage Due to Bride’s Alleged IS Links,” above a picture of a masked isis fighter. The reports, which rarely mentioned Hadiya’s version of events, left the reader with the vivid image of a father protecting his daughter from the Islamic State.
Lawyers I spoke to thought that the whole thing was nuts. “This should have been thrown out of court,” Amba Salelkar, a legal researcher, told me. “People are allowed the dignity of risk.” Newspapers reporting the story referred to it as the “Hadiya love-jihad case” without irony or quotation marks. After the judgment, Hadiya became a celebrity, the media’s hunger fuelled by the difficulty of catching a glimpse of her. Her appearances on television were furtive and fleeting: unauthorized recordings, glimpses through a phalanx of policemen hurrying her along. The video clip I saw, of Hadiya and her mother arguing, was filmed by a Hindu activist named Rahul Easwar, who was dismayed by her treatment. Jahan wrote Hadiya letters, but they were returned to him by Ashokan. Outside the family’s home, constables ordered by the Court to protect Hadiya and her family watched CCTV monitors and asked neighbors to alert them to visitors.
Days after the High Court ordered Hadiya to return to her parents’ home, Jahan contacted a young Supreme Court lawyer named Haris Beeran, and asked him to appeal the ruling. The case excited Beeran. “I thought it would be a challenge, judicially,” he told me. Navigating India’s justice system is its own unique brand of punishment, and for months, while Hadiya stayed with her parents, Jahan’s case wound through its endless plumbing. In the last week of November, both sides argued over whether Hadiya should be heard at all. “Their case was that Hadiya was so indoctrinated that she would have a ready set of answers,” Beeran recalled later. I followed live accounts from the New Delhi court on legal blogs and on Twitter. Hadiya stood listening for two hours before the judges turned to her. It was the first time in months that someone who mattered asked her what she wanted. And yet her presence in the courts was also a terrifying reminder that she was being asked to prove that she was worthy of freedom.
Later, everyone I spoke to was struck by her calm, and her lack of interest in lamenting her months of being held against her will. “I need the freedom to meet the person I love,” she said. “I am asking for fundamental rights.” She spoke about how her parents had tried to convert her back to Hinduism. She wanted to complete her education and leave all this behind. Finally, the judges agreed with Jahan’s lawyers that Hadiya didn’t sound brainwashed. They ruled that Hadiya could return to school and could once again make her own decisions. Even so, the Court decided to continue hearings over Jahan’s association with the Popular Front of India into January, 2018. This month, Hadiya and Jahan met for the first time in six months. The room in which they met was wired with closed-circuit cameras.
The court moved on, but the Hadiya story had reached a vast audience. “So many people who hadn’t believed in it before now do,” Gupta told me, of love jihad. The idea has a way of prying open hidden prejudices through multiple means, like so many keys, one of which might just turn the lock. In Rajasthan, schoolteachers attend fairs to learn about love jihad. In Kolkata, Hindu men are encouraged to fall in love with Muslim women as a form of counteroffensive. One key turned. The day after the couple’s meeting, a video surfaced that abruptly replaced Hadiya in the national mind. I watched it after spending days bracing myself, and then, too, only in a corner at home late one night. In the footage I saw, a Muslim laborer, later identified as Mohammad Afrazul, apparently unaware that he is being filmed, strolls under a tree, while another man, holding a pickaxe, jogs up behind him, takes aim, and lodges it in his upper back. Afrazul turns around, uncomprehending. “What did I do, sir?” he manages to shout. His attacker, later identified as Shambhulal Regar, from a town north of Udaipur, stumbles between blows, preparing to strike again. The camera follows, at a distance. “I am dead, I am dead,” Afrazul cries. Finally, he lies motionless where he has fallen. Regar speaks to the camera. “Jihadis,” he says, breathing deeply. “This is what will happen to you if you spread love jihad in our country.” Then he sets Afrazul on fire. (I later discovered that I had watched an edited version of even more violent footage.)
Hours after the video appeared, the Rajasthan state police brought Regar before a group of reporters. One journalist asked if he felt regret. “I am a regular man,” he replied from under a hood. By then, support for his actions had swelled. “Brother, we should chop up each and every one of these Muslims,” one person wrote in the comments section below the video online. Dozens of others offered their support. A fund drive for Regar’s wife raised more than three hundred thousand rupees (equivalent to nearly five thousand U.S. dollars). To prevent rallies from forming in support of Regar, as well as those calling for his death, the nearby city of Udaipur did what worried officials everywhere in India do these days: they banned gatherings of more than four people and turned off the Internet. Even so, on December 14th, as the light dimmed in the city, a man in a saffron-orange shirt climbed the newly inaugurated gate of the local court building and vigorously waved a flag dyed a luminous orange—a declaration of Hindu supremacy over the police and the courts.
(Rahul Bhatia is a journalist based in Mumbai.)