On 30 October, the Supreme Court directed that Hadiya, a 25-year-old Malayali woman whose conversion to Islam and choice of a partner who shared her faith is under judicial scrutiny, be brought before the court on 27 November. In August last year, Hadiya’s father Asokan had filed a petition in the Kerala High Court claiming that she had been forcibly converted to Islam. While the case was ongoing, Hadiya married a Muslim man named Shafin Jahan—her father challenged the marriage in the high court as well. In May 2017, in an extreme and unprecedented move, the court annulled her marriage and confined her to her father’s custody. Three months later, while hearing Jahan’s appeal against the high court’s decision, the Supreme Court directed the National Investigation Agency to conduct a probe into the marriage. Rather than remedying the violation of the two citizens’ rights immediately, the apex court chose to embark on an enquiry into the alleged radicalisation of young Hindu women converts in Kerala.
A few days before the latest Supreme Court hearing, Rahul Easwar, a right-wing-leaning activist, had released a video of Hadiya pleading to be freed from forced confinement to her father’s home. She states in the video that she may be “killed anytime—tomorrow or the day after” and that her father was “hitting and kicking” her. The Supreme Court acted deaf to her plea. Though the court observed that Hadiya had the right to choose her partner, by fixing 27 November as the date for her production in court, in effect, it allowed Hadiya’s father and the Hindutva anti-conversion forces in Kerala a whole month to apply greater pressure on her.
The Hadiya case has led to a divisive debate in Kerala on the question of individual choice, gender, and religious belonging. The response of the state government—led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—has been tepid at best. While the government remained silent through much of the debate on the case, in early October, it submitted before the Supreme Court that the state police could conduct the investigation, and that there was no need for an NIA probe. However, the state government also reportedly submitted a list of over 90 cases of “forced conversions” to the NIA for its probe. Meanwhile, the statement of a young Hindu woman, who said she was tortured at a reconversion centre in Kochi, notes that the Hindutva outfits that run the centre have made much of the fact that if a Hindu woman marries a man of another faith, even if she does not convert herself, her womb will carry his child. They imply that this is tantamount to the effects of adultery.
Tensions over intercommunity marriage and conversion are certainly not new in Kerala. But this throwback to a slave-society—in which the women are treated as the inalienable property of their fathers and the social groups to which they belong—is new. It is perhaps a sign that we are at the brink of rewriting the social contract that has undergirded Kerala’s model of communal harmony in the twentieth century. The contract that underlay this harmony was forged mainly by three communities—the Nairs, who had thrown off the traditional Shudra caste status of the pre-colonial and colonial Brahminical order; the Ezhava community, which overcame the practice of untouchability through trade and education in the colonial period; and the Syrian Christians who profited through colonial trade and new economic opportunities. The Muslims of Kerala, despite being an organised community by this time, were only partially included in this social order.
The Supreme Court’s response to the case is merely a continuation of the role that Kerala’s courts, as well as Islamophobic media and Hindutva outfits, have played in generating the “love jihad” discourse. “Love jihad” is widely understood as an exercise by a secret group of Muslim men (and women, according to some accounts), who are given material rewards to seduce, marry, and convert Hindu and Christian women. In other cases in Kerala, too, the courts have sent the women to their parents’ custody, even when they were majors and adults, allowing time for the families to pressure the women into leaving their chosen partners.
The judicial concern for love jihad was first voiced in Kerala in 2009 by Justice KT Sankaran of the Kerala High Court, who ordered a police probe into the existence of the practice, while rejecting the anticipatory bail pleas of two men accused of conducting it. The police report was not conclusive—it noted that there was reason to suspect some forceful conversions, but there was no organised attempt at doing so. The media irresponsibly sensationalised the cases and painted the two men as Islamic radicals. Soon, news reports claiming that love-jihad marriages were on the rise began to appear frequently—for instance, on 27 September 2009, the Hindutva right-wing Malayalam-language daily Janmabhoomi reported that 2,864 girls were preyed upon by “love jihadis,” but with no indication of the sources. This insidious propaganda has continued in the right-leaning mainstream media ever since. In an article published on 10 June 2012, the well-known weekly magazine Kalakaumudi claimed that 6,129 non-Muslim girls were “trapped” under love-jihad relationships after 2006. The article noted that, on average, there were 180 conversions per year, and that this was a conspiracy to divide the Hindus.
Two important aspects of intercommunity marriage and conversion in Kerala were completely ignored or rendered invisible by this discourse: one, the fact that for women who married men of other communities to join their husband’s faith was a well-established practice in the state for decades. This is a direct effect of the practice of effectively compulsory endogamy in Kerala, by which such women are inevitably rejected by their own communities and families. Compounded by the fact that women in Kerala face great disadvantages in the labour market, this has led to women choosing to enter their partners’ community.
Secondly, this discourse failed to recognise that conversion to the Hindu faith from Christian and Muslim communities has been quite significant too. There is a well-established network of Hindu conversion centres in Kerala, which includes the Arya Samajam, the Kerala Hindu Mission, and the Akhila Bharatha Ayappa Seva Sangham. In late September, it was widely reported that a woman made allegations of torture and confinement of 65 women at the Arsha Vidhya Samajam centre, a yoga centre in Tripunithura, established by Hindutva outfits in order to reconvert young people who choose partners from other faiths.
The love-jihad discourse has today entered the vocabulary of public discourse, embraced by sections of the dominant Left, including prominent rationalists. Interestingly, its growth coincided with the rise and spread of another term’s usage in the state—moral policing. The phrase gained currency and came to be associated with agitations against moral policing, such as the “Kiss of Love” protests in 2014. The two terms actually reveal the broad contours of the ongoing social struggle in this society. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the overwhelming social issue, it appears, is seduction. The talk of love-jihad essentially points to seduction overpowering women in the Hindu and Christian communities: its primary claim was that young Muslim men were seducing young women of these communities to recruit them for reprehensible Islamicist terrorism. To that extent, this talk policed the boundaries of communities and controlled women’s movement on and past these.
In modern-day Kerala, as in several other places where this discourse has arisen, seduction appears to be seen as a crime worse than even rape—like it was in ancient Greece. Rape arouses public anger in Kerala the most when a sentimental narrative of family loss can be woven around the survivor, and no evidence of her sexual agency is available. However, seduction arouses greater disgust, at least among the highly patriarchal entrenched caste-communities in Kerala, for reasons similar to those advanced in ancient Greece—seduction steals loyalty to the master and his group. The fear of this shift in loyalty to a different religious community has been a significant cause for the furore over the alleged instances of love jihad in the state. Such a shift would represent the weakening of the prevailing social order, in which the Muslim community was excluded, and which was maintained through a strict endogamy.
The present social order in Kerala came into place post-Independence, after a host of factors during the centuries of colonial rule led to a major shift from the pre-colonial order in the Malayalam-speaking regions. In the pre-colonial era, three powerful communities dominated the social and political norms of society—the Brahminical Hindus, the Christians, and the Muslims. Each of these communities was characterised by distinct origin myths that established its claims to be part of society and to control resources. The Brahminical Hindus have the myth of Parasurama as the progenitor of Kerala; the Syrian Christians have the myth of St Thomas, and the Muslims, of Malik Dinar. All three founders are believed to be deeply proximate with the central figures of each faith as well. The Hindus, who had a monopoly over political power, accommodated the others within the framework of the Brahminical order based on caste and janmabhedam, or difference-by-birth. As a result, endogamy became central to the social order in Kerala. Through this order, the Brahminical Hindus established the respective places, rights, and rules of mutual interaction of other communities. The Dalit communities, whose myths speak again and again of dispossession, were relegated to the outside.
This changed through colonialism. Protestant missionary work produced a space, however limited, for some Dalit communities such as the Ezhavas to challenge their exclusion, while communities such as the Syrian Christians, buoyed up by the economic growth under colonialism, were able to establish themselves in the Brahminical socio-political order. The Muslim communities, however, began to be excluded. Colonial resource extraction, for instance through the land revenue settlement in the Malabar region, worked deeply against the Muslims. Moreover, Muslim rebellions against marginalisation—such as the armed uprising in the Malabar region in 1921, against British and Hindu dominance in the region—pushed the community slowly towards the social periphery.
As a result, in the post-Independence arrangement of community power, they were no longer full participants in the core. The determination of which communities would comprise the powerful in the post-Independence era depended on who controlled state resources and on maintaining social boundaries, especially through endogamy. Though Islam as a faith was not fully accepted, the Muslim community were granted a partial inclusion that was conditional upon the community’s efforts towards modernisation and social development. For instance, the public discourse, in the 1960s, often criticised Muslims for not being committed to “social development” and the community was frequently under suspicion of not adhering to state policies on family planning and birth control. Thus, though it was not always apparent at the time, their status was always precarious. It is this social order that underlay Kerala’s atmosphere of communal coexistence in the second half of the twentieth century.
But as the twentieth century drew to a close, the Muslim communities in Kerala began to thrive through the Gulf Boom—a term that refers to the migration of workers from Kerala to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf region in the 1970s—and the employment that they found there. The Gulf Boom, along with reservation policies for Other Backward Classes, led to young Malayali Muslims entering higher education and employment at a much higher rate than elsewhere in the country. Moreover, new discourses of community re-forming among Muslim communities also began to appear in the 1990s, in the wake of rising Hindu majoritarian assertions at the national level. These new Islamicist voices, shaped by transnational links, demanded a re-examination of the social order that shaped Kerala’s core at the time.
As Hindu majoritarianism gains strength and state power, the other core communities—the Nairs, Ezhavas, and Syrian Christians—have now begun to see the limits of claims on the local state. They now seek to redraw the core social order by pivoting it on claims on the Hindutva-controlled state at the national level, and this process has involved the further of exclusion of Kerala Muslims. For instance, the demonising of the Islamicist Popular Front of India, which is shared by the dominant Left, marks an attempt to decisively alienate the group of Muslims who seek a review of the terms of their inclusion and insist that they be content with the earlier terms. Endogamy remains the primary constitutive rule of the game, which has led to the anxiety over Muslims allegedly upsetting it through marrying Hindu women.
At the same time, in everyday life now, the state is witnessing an intermingling of young people across communities in colleges and outside. With the ubiquitous usage of social media, cell phones and other means of communication, which families and community authorities cannot control, the young population of the state has been empowered to make their own choices. According to the state government’s Digital Kerala report, published in October 2016, Kerala has the highest mobile-phone penetration rate in the country—close to 32 million connections for a population of around 33 million. The report also notes that the government’s IT@School project, which aims to make at least four lakh graduating students computer literate every year, has ensured that 12,600 schools in the state have a high level of computer literacy.
As a result, policing of social boundaries in the state has become all the more urgent and even violent. Unfortunately, the state’s youth, who now bid to assert themselves as full human beings and citizens, are facing the collateral damage of these battles fought by the elite among the dominant communities. Young people, such as Hadiya, who choose their faith and partner freely, are being dragged back violently into the control of their fathers and communities of birth.
The young people of Kerala suffer today, caught in the tussles between patriarchal families, and community elites; and between the Left, which adheres to an anachronistic vision of Malayali society on the one hand, and fundamental changes in society, which are brought about by more far-flung transformations on the other. Hadiya is a symbol of the trauma and terror that they suffer. This incident is not singular; it is a continuing tale of oppression and resistance.
J Devika is a feminist historian, translator and social researcher at the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala.