Of Hadiya, and why the real Kerala story is mostly about love, and not so much jihad

'The Kerala Story' depends on a discredited theory and is part of a narrative that aims to show the state's communal amity in poor light.

ByK A Shaji

Published May 05, 2023 | 11:30 AMUpdated May 05, 2023 | 11:30 AM

Hadiya and Jahan

Seldom does a young woman marrying a man of her choice make headlines: Hadiya was an exception.

Hailing from Vaikom in Kerala’s Kottayam district, Hadiya — previously Akhila Ashokan — was an unlikely subject for news, until she converted to Islam and married a Muslim youth.

Hadiya’s decision created a hue and cry in India after Sangh Parivar outfits supported her father Ashokan KM, who waged a legal battle to “get her back”.

The cacophony it created went on even as Hadiya remained silent on the sidelines — in fact, no one sought her version.

The marriage even made The New Yorker term 2017 The Year of Love Jihad in India. The hullabaloo was over nothing —  the so-called “love jihad” — it was later revealed.

In February 2021, long after the Supreme Court of India reunited the couple separated by a lower court, Ashokan and his wife Ponnamma travelled to meet their only child, Hadiya, at her homoeopathy clinic in Othukkungal in the Malappuram district, where she lived with her husband.

The bitterness seemed to have been put behind.

Related: ‘The Kerala Story a move to create communal polarisation’ 

Hadiya marriage case

But there was a lot of bitterness in the beginning. Hadiya became news after Ashokan moved a habeas corpus petition in the High Court of Kerala to find her.

Hadiya with parents at her clinic

Hadiya with parents at her clinic. (Sourced)

The ex-serviceman contended that his daughter was brainwashed into embracing Islam, and forced to marry a Muslim youth.

On 21 December, 2016, Hadiya appeared in court with a man, who she said was her husband, Shafin Jahan.

Ashokan argued that Hadiya had fallen prey to an organised conspiracy and the conspirators were trying to traffic her to Syria to join the Islamic State.

The right-wing media rode on Ashokan’s statement and termed it a case of “love jihad”.

In May 2017, the high court annulled Hadiya’s marriage with Jahan, saying she was a victim of indoctrination and psychological kidnapping, and terming their claims about finding the match through a Muslim matrimonial site bogus.

The court also handed Hadiya’s custody to Ashokan, saying, “As per Indian tradition, the custody of an unmarried daughter is with the parents until she is properly married.”

Jahan challenged the high court order, and the couple remained separated for 10 months till the Supreme Court turned down the lower court’s order — and united them.

The Supreme Court upheld the marriage after Jahan convinced the apex court that their relationship involved only love and no jihad.

Hadiya, too, told the court that she had converted and chosen a partner of her own volition.

While pursuing Homoeopathy in a college in Salem, Tamil Nadu, Hadiya became interested in Islam after watching her friends Faseena and Jaseela. She married Jahan much later, after she had converted to Islam.

Related: Exhibitors’ ‘wait and watch’ strategy with The Kerala Story

The NIA investigation

The National Investigation Agency (NIA), too, became a stakeholder in the case after the Supreme Court ordered it to probe if there were largescale and systematic conversions to Islam to boost terrorist activities.

The premier anti-terrorist agency investigated 11 cases of interfaith marriages.

The NIA initially told the court that Hadiya was “a victim of indoctrination and psychological kidnapping”, and the claims that their marriage was arranged through a matrimony website were false.

The agency also said that her handlers, who arranged her marriage, were looking for an active worker of the now-banned Popular Front of India (PFI) as her groom.

The agency later wound up its probe since there was no prosecutable evidence to bring formal charges against the “handlers”.

Related: The Kerala Story makers face a ₹1 crore challenge

A non-existent timebomb

South First contacted Hadiya’s family against the backdrop of the impending release of The Kerala Story, a movie by Sudipto Sen.

Sudipto Sen's movie has met with resistance in Kerala. (Kerala)

Sudipto Sen’s movie has met with resistance in Kerala. (Kerala)

The family refused to comment. Both Hadiya and Jahan are now leading a quiet life. While she is running the clinic, Jahan operates a pharmacy nearby.

The makers of the movie have been claiming that more than 32,000 young women from Kerala were brainwashed and converted, and made to join terrorist outfits.

The Kerala Story‘s narrative is being publicly challenged in the southern state. Secular and democratic forces view it as a fake, unsubstantiated narrative.

However, the movie has succeeded in rekindling the debate on “love jihad” despite its existence being ruled out by the Supreme Court, the Union Home Ministry, and different investigating agencies.

Incidentally, the film is being released on the third anniversary of National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson Rekha Sharma’s terming of “love jihad” as a ticking timebomb about to explode in Kerala.

Interview: The Kerala Story bigger than politics, religion: Adah Sharma

Celebration of absurdity

Kerala Women’s Commission Chairperson P Sathidevi felt the film and Sangh Parivar’s narrative is a celebration of absurdity “by claiming that Kerala is a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism”.

P Sathidevi, Chairperson, Kerala State Women's Commission (Source: Kerala Women's Commission)

P Sathidevi, Chairperson, Kerala State Women’s Commission (Source: Kerala Women’s Commission)

Except for Sangh Parivar leaders and occasional pastoral letters issued by a section of the Christian clergy who share the soft Hindutva ideology, there are few takers for the “love-jihad” narrative in Kerala.

In September 2021, a Catholic bishop sparked a controversy by warning the laity to be wary of “narcotic jihad” and “love jihad” targeting Christian girls.

Now on the defensive, the makers of the film have said they attempted to portray the “recruitment” of three Malayali women — Nimisha alias Fathima Isa, Sonia Sebastian alias Ayisha Rafeela, and Merin Jacob alias Mariyam —by the IS.

But they were not love jihad cases in which Muslim boys faked love to indoctrinate women of other faiths. These women left India along with their husbands who had converted to Islam.

“No sensible person in Kerala would support those leaving the country and joining terrorist groups. And we have no sympathy for the couples who joined the terrorist outfit,” PK Firoz, general secretary of the Muslim Youth League, said.

Related: Censor Board gives ‘A’ nod to ‘The Kerala Story’ with cuts

Made in Kerala

Manufactured in the state and exported nationwide to fuel Islamophobia, tales of “love jihad” are being peddled through social media platforms by Sangh Parivar handles catering to North Indians.

The state unit of the BJP used the idea as a campaign issue in the last Assembly election but failed to win even a single seat. The party had promised legislation against “love jihad” if voted to power.

But party leaders remained tightlipped when asked why the Centre has not made legislation banning “love jihad”. ​
​On 27 January, 2020​, Rekha Sharma, National Commission for Women (NCW) chairperson, said in a television interview that “love jihad” was on in Kerala. She based her premise, she contended, on a “detailed investigation”.

​However, RTI responses from the NCW revealed that her “investigation” was a three-day visit to Kerala to interact with Hadiya’s family. ​

Related: Is a section of Kerala Christians crying wolf to appease the BJP?

A claim and U-turn

Three years ago, the Syro-Malabar Church alleged that a dozen Christian women had fallen prey to “love jihad” and were taken to Syria from Kerala. It withdrew the allegation following demands for proof.

Within weeks of the church’s allegation, on 4 February, 2020, the then Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy told Parliament that no case of “love jihad” had been reported by any of the central agencies from any part of the state.

The Kerala police, too, have no evidence. ​Additional Director-General of Police on 10 February,​ 2020, reported to the central Minorities Commission that it had conducted a detailed inquiry into the allegations and found that “the girls” ​mentioned ​were adults, who voluntarily married men from other faiths.

It is not against the law or the Constitution to choose one’s life partner.

Sathidevi said the Kerala Women’s Commission has never received any complaint about the so-called “love jihad” other than the Hadiya case.

Quoting the commission’s proceedings, she said the panel ensured Hadiya was not subjected to coercion. She also said the commission is bound to promote interfaith marriages and would continue to do so.

Related: No large-scale IS recruitments in Kerala, say police

How it all began

​According to writer and academic J Devika, the “love jihad” debate began in Kerala about 15 years ago when a Malayalam daily, Kerala Kaumudi, front-paged a report quoting “highly reliable” but anonymous sources.

J Devika. (J Devika/Wikimedia Commons)

J Devika. (J Devika/Wikimedia Commons)

The headline was: Romeo jihadis prowling with love traps.

​The​ report said that over 4,000 young Hindu women ​were converted to Islam faking love in the previous four years. Going by its number, at least 1,000 women should have converted every year.

​In a few days, some other dailies replicated the same theory, quoting police intelligence. But the number of converted women dwindled to 2,866.

Devika felt that those reports were planted by right-wing intelligence officers to vitiate the state’s social amity.

“The reports were part of an organised conspiracy. They echoed a regressive narrative propagated by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, an offshoot of the RSS,” she said.

“In 2009, the Samithi alleged that more than 30,000 Hindu women from Karnataka were converted to Islam. Later, it claimed 4,000 young Hindu women were forcibly converted to Islam in Kerala between 2006-09. These were all just allegations far removed from the truth,” she said.

“​Once the Samiti’s claim created a sensation in Kerala. A ​thorough probe was ordered, and the state police concluded that it was a misinformation campaign,” NC Asthana, a retired Kerala-cadre Indian Police Service officer, said.

Why interfaith marriages?

​While disposing of a case demanding an investigation into such marriages, Justice M Sasidharan Nambiar of the Kerala High Court cited the police report and said interreligious marriages are perhaps prevalent in Kerala due to its high literacy and the social reforms the state has seen.

​Many reformist Christian groups in Kerala accused bishops of trying to appease the BJP and RSS for personal gains by regularly repeating false narratives over “love jihad”.

“​There are organised attempts to disrupt Kerala’s religious harmony. They are blowing the ‘love jihad’ trumpet out of proportion. What is happening now is a political ​move with a vexed communal agenda,” Bishop Dr. Yuhanon Mar Meletius of the Kerala Orthodox Church told South First.

He opined that if there are more interreligious marriages today, it is because young people​ now have more opportunities to meet and mingle freely.

‘Women are not family property’

​According to prominent Malayalam writer MN Karasseri, religious outfits in Kerala share the Sangh Parivar theory of “love jihad” mainly as a conservative reaction against changing mores.

MN Karasseri (Mullookkaaran/Wikimedia Commons)

He said the Christian leadership is perturbed by the increasing number of interreligious marriages, which challenge the older patriarchal project to police social boundaries.

“Fundamentally, interreligious marriages are personal choices of consenting adults​. The present discourse of ‘love jihad’ communalises and criminalises such choices,” Devika said.

“No woman is the property of her family. They have all right to decide what is good for them in life​,” she added.

​Kerala Latin Catholic Association state secretary Sherry J Thomas told ​ South First that he has no proof to substantiate allegations of “love jihad”.

“There may be isolated instances and disputes related to interreligious marriages. They must not be blown out of proportion,” he said.

​Amidst all the propaganda, government data shows that, on average, interfaith marriages account for only about 2.01 percent of the marriages in Kerala.