The Supreme Court has ordered an investigation by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) into a possible “conspiracy” which involves Hindu women in Kerala being converted to Islam. That an anti-terrorism investigative agency has been tasked with ascertaining the veracity of religious conversions is problematic enough. That this order comes in a case where the Kerala High Court has questioned a 24-year-old adult woman’s autonomy and freedom to choose the course of her life is doubly disquieting.
In May this year, the Kerala High Court annulled the marriage between Shafi Jehan and Hadiya, who was known as Akhila before she chose to convert to Islam. In doing so, it argued that a woman’s “marriage being the most important decision in her life, [it] can also be taken only with the active involvement of her parents” — a judgement that enforces the widespread patriarchal understanding of women being the forever wards and property of their parents.
Hadiya’s father had argued that his daughter had come under the influence of radical Islamists, while she has told the court that she converted to Islam of her own volition. More disturbingly, while declaring the marriage as a “sham”, the high court suggested that Jehan had links with the Islamic State extremists on the basis of the WhatsApp groups he had been a part of — a police investigation had not found any criminal element in Hadiya’s conversion or marriage.
When Jehan moved the SC, he was asking it to adjudicate on the wisdom of the HC judgment. The court, instead, chose to bring in the NIA to probe whether there is a larger, dubious pattern in conversions of Hindu women to Islam. Why was it moved to do so remains unclear, and invites suspicions of judicial overreach. And what of Hadiya? Has she had a chance to argue her case? Since the May order of the high court, she has been under house arrest in her parents’ home, forbidden to meet her husband or anyone else. Neither has the SC intervened to free her of this illegal incarceration, nor has it bothered to listened to her account of the case.
There have been countless cases in this country’s history when the courts have stood up for the freedom of the individual against the diktat of the community, family or state. By choosing to prioritise shadowy fears of “love jihad” over a flesh-and-blood individual’s rights, the court has gone against its own grain. It runs the risk of feeding into a communal narrative, which is growing in strength.
It has set a dangerous precedent that can surely be used to curb the agency and autonomy of Indian women. The Kerala HC, in its order, had said that “we are not satisfied that it is safe to let Akhila [be] free to decide what she wants in her life.” The Supreme Court must reinstate the freedom of this Indian citizen.