On Women’s Day came the Supreme Court judgment that Hadiya, the 24-year-old Kerala resident at the centre of an alleged “love jihad” row, was free to live with her husband Shafin Jahan and her marriage was perfectly valid.
While the SC verdict is being celebrated, the very fact that the top court of the country had to step in to rule that marriage between two consenting adults is valid is worrisome.
The way the Hadiya case had been handled by investigative agencies and the lower courts is problematic at multiple levels – the assumption that a woman cannot decide the course of her own life, the willingness to believe that there has to be something suspicious about a Hindu embracing Islam, and the credence it lent to the ridiculous, dangerous theory of love jihad.
Indeed, even the Supreme Court has said that while Hadiya’s marriage is valid, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) can pursue to “its logical conclusion” its probe into the “love jihad” angle.
Hadiya’s father, KM Ashokan, has refused to give up, and cited the NIA continuing the probe as proof that the investigative body thinks Shafin Jahan is a terrorist. He has said he is “pained” that his daughter will go away to live with a terrorist, and “will consider filing a review petition”.
The Kerala High Court had, in May 2017, declared her marriage null and void. She was then kept under house arrest by her father. During this period, a video featuring her was released by activist Rahul Easwar, in which she says she fears for her life and is being assaulted at home by her father.
Ashokan is but an individual, a father whose daughter has chosen to go against him, in choosing her religion as well as life partner. What is worrying is that some in the country’s judicial system – in place to ensure justice and equality to every Indian – seemed to share and act in accordance with all of Ashokan’s biases and prejudices, at the cost of negating Hadiya’s autonomy, Jahan’s rights, and colluding in the demonisation of an entire community.
It has been a long road for Hadiya and Jahan, who met through a matrimonial website and got married in 2016. On May 24, 2017, the Kerala HC declared the marriage a “sham”, directing that she be returned to the “custody” of her parents.
In a judgment that infantlilised an adult citizen of a democracy, the court said: “A girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited in many ways”. “Her marriage being the most important decision in her life, can also be taken only with the active involvement of her parents,” it added.
Jahan appealed against it, but relief came in slow, small degrees. In November 2017, the Supreme Court “allowed” Hadiya to resume her studies at a homeopathy college in Tamil Nadu's Salem, but put her under the guardianship of her college dean, not allowing her to chat with her husband.
It was only in January this year that the top court put Hadiya and Jahan's marriage out of the purview of the NIA, saying the investigative body could not question its validity even as it continued with its “forced conversions racket” probe.
Akhila to Hadiya, in good faith
Law's excesses had entered Hadiya’s life long before her marriage.
Hadiya was born Akhila Asokan, the daughter of a devout Hindu mother and an atheist father. In August 2010, after completing school, she went to Salem to study. Here, she was impressed by a Muslim friend and her sister, and was drawn to their religion.
She started reading up on Islam, and in September 2015, expressed her desire to convert. Matters came to a head two months later, when she refused to participate in Hindu rituals after the death of her grandfather. She left home, went to the house of her Muslim friends, and sought help to convert to Islam.
In January 2016, her father filed a petition alleging that she was being converted forcibly. Akhila denied this in court and the plea was dismissed. In July 2016, she formally converted to Islam and changed her name to Hadiya.
The next month, her father moved the HC once more, claiming Muslim organisations were planning to take his daughter abroad to join the Islamic State. In December that year, Hadiya married Jahan.
Two days after her wedding, she appeared in court with her husband, but the court “expressed its dissatisfaction over the marriage and directed her to go back to the hostel”.
She was not allowed to stay with her husband since, and was shuttled from guardian to guardian, until, more than one year later on March 8, the Supreme Court recognised that she had the right and the agency to choose her life partner.
Hadiya and Jahan can hopefully live together now. However, the case has exposed the deep-rooted patriarchy and suspicion of the “other religion” that exists in Indian society. Individuals can have prejudices, and constitutional safeguards exist so that these prejudices do not become detrimental to other’s interests.
When institutions allow themselves to be guided by similar biases, it is a miscarriage of justice. It is to be hoped that the SC striking down the Kerala HC judgment will lead to court verdicts upholding justice alone in the face of societal biases and political pressures, in the future.