Hindu right-wing groups run campaign against what they say is Muslim conspiracy to convert Hindu girls into Islam.
Shafin Jahan approached India’s Supreme Court after his marriage to a 24-year-old woman, who had converted to Islam, was annulled in May by the high court in the southern state of Kerala.
On August 16, the Supreme Court, which is the country’s top court, reserved its judgment and instead announced a probe by the country’s “anti-terror” agency into whether the marriage was part of a “Love Jihad” conspiracy or whether the woman, Akhila Ashokan, converted to Islam of her own free will.
Far-right Hindu groups allege that “Love Jihad” is a conspiracy by Muslim groups to lure Hindu women into marriages with Muslim men and to convert them to Islam.
The Kerala high court had nullified the marriage after the woman’s father, KM Ashokan, filed a petition alleging that his daughter converted to Islam as part of a plan to send her to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
The high court said the girl was “weak and vulnerable” and susceptible to exploitation, and that “marriage being the most important decision in her life, can also be taken only with the active involvement of her parents.”
Feminists and rights activists have expressed shock at the Supreme Court’s decision, which was taken without consulting Akhila, who prefers to go by her new Muslim name, Hadiya.
It is not just her freedom to choose, her physical freedom has also been curtailed. She is effectively a prisoner at her father's house right now
“[The] Constitution upheld by the court is the only place where young couple can hope to get protection and justice. And it is dangerous for the court to start saying such things,” said Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA).
“It is not just her freedom to choose, her physical freedom has also been curtailed. She is effectively a prisoner at her father’s house right now. She is not allowed to go outside her house and she is not even allowed to meet journalists.”
Hadiya has been under the custody of her father in Kottayam since May against the wishes she expressed to the Kerala high court.
“I am shocked by what the Supreme Court has done. The Kerala high court judgment was so shocking that most of us assumed that the Supreme Court would stay the judgment immediately,” said Sanjay Hegde, a Supreme Court lawyer.
“[But] the political narrative that these [interfaith] marriages are done as a cover of terrorist activities are finding tractions in the courts,” he added.
Hadiya was introduced to Islam by her friend and subsequently converted. In December last year, she chose to marry Jahan, a Muslim man.
Some far-right Hindu groups have portrayed interfaith marriages as a Muslim conspiracy to destroy Hinduism in India.
The term “Love Jihad” was first mentioned in around 2007 in Kerala and neighbouring Karnataka state, but it became part of the public discourse in 2009. It was originally referred to as “Romeo Jihad”.
Catholic Church bodies in Kerala and Hindu groups in Karnataka in 2009 claimed that thousands of women had been coerced or lured into converting to Islam.
That same year, the Kerala High Court ordered the police to look into the claims. In 2012, the police categorically declared that there was “no substance” to the claims that “Love Jihad” was taking place.
The 2009 case of 18-year-old Silija Raj, who eloped with her Muslim boyfriend in Karnataka, was used as propaganda by far-right Hindu groups to peddle the “Love Jihad” myth.
The term was widely used by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during elections in northern Uttar Pradesh state, contributing to the polarisation of the electorate along religious lines.
“There is nothing that proves that “Love Jihad” exists. It is a way to control women and to build up the bogeyman of evil Muslims,” Charu Gupta, a professor of history at the University of Delhi, said.
Similar tactics were used by far-right groups when India was still under British rule.
“It is significant to note that in certain ways “Love Jihad”, and the various issues it touched on, had an uncanny resemblance to the ‘abduction’ and conversion campaigns launched by the Arya Samaj and other Hindu revivalist bodies in the 1920s in Uttar Pradesh, at a time when there was a spate of Hindu-Muslim riots in the region,” Gupta wrote in a research paper.
Activists fear that the decision by the Supreme Court will boost far-right groups as relations between the Muslim and Hindu communities deteriorate.
Hegde, the lawyer, explained that it was an interim order and that the final verdict will be decided based on the results of the investigation.
“It is going to embolden those who are against interfaith marriages,” said the AIPWA’s Krishnan.
“Why has the court ordered a probe into an avowedly consensual marriage where an adult woman married the person of her choice?”
Gupta said that in the “Love Jihad” myth “lecherous behaviour, skill in luring Hindu women through false promises, a high sexual appetite, a life of luxury and religious fanaticism are all portrayed as dominant traits of the male Muslim character”.
The myth, she added, provides “privileged status to moral panic and public morality over constitutional morality …”
The court order has raised many issues, including an adult woman’s right to choose her partner and her privacy as guaranteed by the Constitution.
“The court should have called the 24-year-old woman to Delhi and heard her side of the story and ascertained that the marriage was the woman’s own choice,” said Krishnan. “It should have ended the matter right then and there.”
“This court verdict is a wake-up call.”