Her mother warned her “there would be no happy ending” as she was a Hindu, and he a Muslim. But with their families and police beside them, the story of Ashitha Babu and Shakeel Ahmed has turned out different.
On April 17, Ashitha and Shakeel of Mandya city, both 29, got married, after 12 years of courtship — the last few days of which were spent fighting the charge of love jihad by right-wing groups.
Falling in one of Karnataka’s most clannish regions, Mandya isn’t used to stories such as theirs. Families belonging to the dominant agricultural community of the Vokkaligas, such as Ashitha’s, are strongly patriarchal and known to aggressively stick to their own.
Ashitha’s and Shakeel’s families have been friends for long. However, the two fell in love only when they joined the local PES College, in 2003, after Class X and enrolled for graduation in business management.
They had been together for three years when Ashitha’s father, Dr Narendra Babu, a pediatrician, and his wife Uma Devi came to know about the affair. Initially, Uma says, they tried to convince Ashitha to end the relationship, including sending her away to live with an aunt in London for two years to do MBA.
“We learnt about their relationship as people were gossiping about it. We asked Ashitha about it and she first told us he was just a friend. After a while, she said she was in love. We told her there would be no happy ending because we are Hindus and he is a Muslim,” says Uma, at the family home in Mandya.
But Ashitha returned from London, five years ago, as determined to spend her life with Shakeel. “She never budged from her decision to marry Shakeel. She said she would end her life if we forced her to forget him,” says Uma.
While Ashitha got her family around, Shakeel was having an equally difficult time at home. Shakeel’s father, Mukhtar Ahmed, is a businessman, and while he knew Ashitha’s family well, his extended and orthodox family was aghast at the idea of Shakeel marrying a Hindu. Shakeel, who also did MBA, runs his father’s business.
“My brothers and relatives said I should say no to the marriage,” says Ahmed. Later, they said, the only way they would agree to the marriage was if Ashitha converted to Islam before the wedding.
“I was aware of my daughter’s relationship with Shakeel, but Ahmed didn’t know until a few months ago. We had several discussions on the issue. He finally agreed to the marriage, but also said he would have done something to prevent the relationship if he had been aware of it when it began,” says Babu.
The talks were held mostly at Shakeel’s home, the families meeting each other more than six times. They admit that the first thing they considered was what would happen if permission was denied for the marriage. Babu told Ahmed that Ashitha had said she would kill herself. Ahmed was finally convinced after talking to Ashitha and Shakeel together and seeing how painful a separation would be for them.
“The situation was not in our hand as they were deeply in love. She cried (during the meeting). In Islam, there is a strong belief that the tears of a woman are not good for any family. So we agreed to the marriage,” says Ahmed.
He also told Ashitha about the condition that she convert. “Shakeel said he would be boycotted by his family and relatives if he married my daughter without her converting. So we agreed,” says Uma.
When the Ahmeds heard that Ashitha would convert, much of the opposition on their side disappeared.
Over a week before the wedding, Ashitha converted and took on the name Shaista Sultan. In the days before the April 17 nikah, she learnt Muslim customs.
However, on April 12, fresh trouble erupted. Even as the wedding preparations were on, right-wing groups got a whiff of the coming union and labelled it love jihad.
“A group of people claiming to be Bajrang Dal activists came to our home on the morning of April 12 and said they wanted to talk to my daughter. They demanded that Ashitha forget Shakeel. She told them to leave. They left shouting slogans against us and calling the marriage love jihad,” says Uma.
Then an organisation called the Swabhimani Vokkaligara Vedike and pro-Hindu organisations called a bandh in Mandya on April 16, just a day before the wedding, in protest. The announcement triggered more agitations for and against the wedding.
Babu claims he even received a threatening call from Dubai on April 13, and that an unidentified man told him to stop the marriage or lose his daughter and son-in-law. “I did not file a complaint but informed police about it. They suggested that my daughter and I keep our mobile phones switched off,” Babu says.
With tension growing, the Mandya police deployed forces at the homes of both families.
According to local BJP leader C T Manjunath, they opposed the wedding because Ashitha was converting to Islam. “We are not opposing the marriage of a Hindu and a Muslim. We are protesting against the conversion of the bride to Islam. Why do they want Ashitha to convert if it is true love?” says Manjunath.
The threat of love jihad remains very much real though, he adds, claiming 40 such relationships in Mandya alone. Muslim youths are marrying Hindu girls of reputed families through dubious means, Manjunath says.
On April 17, Ashitha and Shakeel got married at a private ceremony, attended only by close relatives. In the evening, a grand reception was held for the couple at Taj Convention Hall in Mysore, as nearly a hundred policemen kept guard outside.
Mandya DySP TJ Udesha says police’s main priority was maintaining law and order, and that they had extended all possible protection to both the families.
“The deployment will continue for a few more days. We will withdraw the men only after we are confident there is no threat to them,” says Udesh.
The Mandya police have also registered a case against those who held a protest outside Ashitha’s residence on April 12.
Ashitha and Shakeel say they aren’t intimidated. “I convinced Shakeel and his family to agree to our marriage. I can’t live without him. I have willingly accepted a new way of life to be with him,” says Ashitha.
“Ashitha and I have been meeting each other, all over Mandya and Bengaluru, for 12 years. We went to college together. Nobody opposed us. Just when we had convinced our parents, people are opposing us and there is so much publicity,” says Shakeel.
“We were in love for 12 years. How can they call it love jihad?” asks Ashitha.
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