Annulled by HC, Shefin Jahan’s marriage to a Hindu convert is being investigated by NIA. But Akhila’s journey to become Hadiya began long before she met him. SHAJU PHILIP tells her story
THE Kottayam house where lives the woman whose conversion to Islam is now the subject of a probe by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has long battled matters of faith. The 24-year-old’s father is a sworn atheist, her mother a staunch Hindu. K M Akhila, now Hadiya, often found herself torn between the two.
Confined in the three-room house at T V Puram for the past three months, on court orders, Hadiya has not been allowed to step out or meet anyone. Policemen watch her every move, and monitor the neighbourhood. Her uncle Suresh Babu, a local Congress leader, says, “Despite several rounds of counselling, Hadiya is sticking to her Islamic faith. Now she is asking her parents to embrace Islam.” Akhila’s aunt Ganga blames her parents, “Ashokan used to chide wife Ponnamma over her religious beliefs. The daughter was confused.”
In the only visual of Hadiya to emerge from inside, in a controversial video made by an activist, she can be seen standing in a doorway. She pleads, “Is this what my life would be like now?”
Akhila is the only daughter of K M Ashokan, 56, a retired Armyman, and Ponnamma. T V Puram in Kerala’s Kottayam district is a quiet, middle-class Hindu neighbourhood, and Akhila studied at the Government Higher Secondary School here. Relatives say she struggled with studies as she entered her senior years.
After clearing Class 12 in her second attempt, she applied for admission to the private Sivaraj Homeopathy Medical College & Research Institute in Salem, Tamil Nadu. Suresh Babu says he helped her get a seat “through an agent”. In August 2010, Akhila, 18, boarded a train to Salem, 400 km away.
Of the 25 students in her course, four were from Kerala. Akhila quickly bonded with the four — Divya, Archana Rajan, Dilna and Jaseela Aboobacker — as well as Jaseela’s younger sister Faseena, who had joined another course at the same institute. Six months later, the six took up a house on rent together, moving out of the hostel.
This was the first time Akhila had had Muslim friends, or Muslim acquaintances. Jaseela, who is now a homeopathic doctor, says Akhila would watch her and Faseena as they offered namaz five times a day. Akhila’s interest surprised her, she adds. “We thought she was an atheist like her father. When our roommates went to a temple, they would have to coerce Akhila to come along.”
Soon, Akhila borrowed a Quran in Malayalam from Jaseela to read. She started posting verses from it on Facebook. “She said it was better to be associated with a religion than be an atheist,” Jaseela says, adding, “Akhila shared everything with her mother.”
Archana, who was part of their group, says one development proved crucial. “Akhila failed in the first-semester exam. Heartbroken, she wanted to quit the course. It was Jaseela who counselled Akhila to stay back. After that, they grew even closer,” says Archana, of Aryambavu in Palakkad.
Akhila now started listening to Islamic sermons on her phone, downloaded from the Internet. Soon, she had questions about Islam that Jaseela and Faseena found difficult to answer. Hoping to clear her doubts, Jaseela put Akhila in touch with her father, Parayil Aboobacker. Aboobacker, who runs a furniture business near Perinthalmanna, admits he talked to her.
In 2011, Akhila was home on leave during Ramzan, and observed a fast. Later, for Eid-ul-Fitr, she joined Jaseela and Faseena at their home in Angadippuram in Malappuram, with their other Hindu friends. “Once, Akhila disclosed her intention to convert. I told her her father is an atheist and her locality has no Muslims. I gave her Upanishads (from his house) to read. I urged her to finish her studies,” says Aboobacker, who is in his 60s.
Jaseela says they started getting worried when Akhila started posting questions on Islam on the Internet. One day, when she posted on Facebook the verse ‘Every soul shall taste death’, it got a like from a Kannur youth, Shanib, studying MBA in Bengaluru. He introduced her to his cousin, Sherin Shahana, whose husband Fazal Musthafa had pursued Islamic Studies in Yemen. The couple were at the time in Mangaluru, where Musthafa worked at a mosque.
As Akhila started communicating regularly with Shahana and Musthafa, Jaseela says they “warned her” over such Facebook friendships. “We told her about people on social media who have an agenda to trap Hindu women. But she ignored us.”
According to police and court documents, Akhila told the couple about her desire to convert, and that, accordingly, they came to Kochi on September 10, 2015. Police say Akhila got an affidavit attested from an advocate in Kochi saying she was living as a Muslim without compulsion and wanted to take on the name Aasiya.
While Akhila kept this conversion bid a secret, relatives says Ponnamma knew of her daughter’s growing leanings towards Islam. Matters came to a head in November 2015, when Akhila’s grandfather died and she refused to join the 40th-day rituals.
Says uncle Suresh Babu, “We thought she was menstruating. But she told us she was following Islam and could not do Hindu rituals. Later, we heard she had brought Islamic literature home, fasted and offered prayers five times a day.”
Babu says Akhila argued that Islam was a good religion compared to Hinduism. “When we scolded her, she urged her parents too to embrace Islam,” says her uncle. Ashokan and Ponnamma refuse to talk to the media. With her rift with them widening, Akhila left home on January 1, 2016, apparently to return to college in Salem. Instead, she went to her friend’s Malappuram home.
Says Aboobacker, “Akhila was on her way to Mangaluru, to Shahana and Musthafa. They wanted her to stop studying and end relations with her family. Jaseela told me if Akhila goes to Mangaluru, we would not get her back. Hence, she forced her to come to our house.”
Aboobacker says Akhila, however, stuck to her decision to convert, and the next day (January 2), he took her to an advocate in Perinthalmanna. She again got an attested affidavit saying she was embracing Islam of her own will. On Akhila’s insistence to learn more about Islam, Aboobacker says, he took her to two Islamic institutions in Kozhikode. Both refused to admit Akhila instantly, and so they turned to Sathya Sarani, the only institute in Kerala that offers a two-month residential programme for new converts to Islam.
Sathya Sarani too reportedly refused to admit her, for want of proper documents, and Aboobacker brought Akhila back home. The next day, he says, they had a fight and he sent her back to the Salem college. An official at the Salem college refused to share any details. “We can’t help you. We have no clue about that student,” he said.
Crime Branch Superintendent of Police K V Santhosh, who headed the High Court-ordered probe into Akhila’s conversion, says the friendship with the Mangaluru couple didn’t last long. Akhila did not like their “extreme orthodoxy”, he says. The couple later moved to Saudi Arabia.
When Akhila returned to college in Salem on January 6, 2016, she wore a headscarf, creating a stir. One of her classmates told her father, and an anxious Ashokan started calling her. Akhila, however, refused to return home, and instead again went to Jaseela’s house. Says Aboobacker, “I informed Ashokan that his daughter wanted to convert. I told him I would accompany her home. He told me he would pick her up from my house.”
Before the father arrived though, Sathya Sarani members reached Aboobacker’s house, to get her. The president of a women’s group, National Women’s Front, A S Zainaba, also came, reportedly at the behest of Sathya Sarani. But, Aboobacker says, he did not allow them to take Akhila. “I asked Akhila to go to Salem. So when Ashokan came, she was no longer there,” says Aboobacker.
Ashokan registered a case at a local police station and also moved a habeas corpus petition in the high court. Aboobacker was arrested and jailed for two days. Later, it was Zainaba who produced Akhila in the high court on January 19, 2016.
The court allowed Akhila to stay with Zainaba, and also let her attend the Islamic course at Sathya Sarani.
Zainaba, who once worked with the Sathya Sarani, says the institute had sought her help to ascertain Akhila’s intentions. Akhila attended a course at Sathya Sarani, and returned to Zainaba’s house as ‘Hadiya’. “Now Hadiya also started talking about marriage, hoping to find some support system. At her behest, I registered her name on a matrimonial website,” says Zainaba.
A police officer says the marriage plans were the tipping point for Hadiya’s father. He says Ashokan, being an atheist, was not as concerned about his daughter’s conversion until then. “The news of Kerala Muslims leaving to join the Islamic State along with their wives, a few of them converts, worried him. He told his daughter about his fears. Hadiya vowed she would not go anywhere. But, on August 16, 2016, Ashokan filed a writ petition in the high court, alleging there was a move to take his daughter out of India.”
Police sources say Ashokan’s fears are baseless, merely the concerns of a father about losing his only child. Hadiya did not even have a passport, points out an officer. In response to her father’s plea, Hadiya was produced before court on August 22. Again she refused to go with her parents and said she wanted to stay with Zainaba. However, the court sent her to a hostel in Kochi. On September 29, at the next hearing, she was allowed to return to Zainaba.
Shefin Jahan, a graduate in Islamic Studies, and working as a manager with a firm in Muscat since January 2015, was also registered on the matrimonial website. Shefin’s parents Shajahan and Rejila Beevi, originally from Kollam, settled in Muscat nearly a decade ago, but his father recently set up a business in Tamil Nadu. His sister Shehla Jahan is a nurse in Muscat.
Shefin came to Kerala in November 2016 on a two-month leave, and planned to get married during that time. Since he has some links with the trust that runs Sathya Sarani, the wedding with Hadiya was arranged quickly. On December 19, the two got married at Zainaba’s house in Malappuram.
“The marriage was not fake,” Shefin stresses, to charges that it was just a ploy to take Hadiya abroad. “I invited Ashokan too, he didn’t turn up. My friends and relatives came. We registered the marriage at the local panchayat.”
Dy SP, Perinthalmanna, M P Mohanachandran, who probed the case initially, also found nothing suspicious in the marriage. “It was an arranged marriage, attended by the local masjid committee representatives. They invited over 50 people. They hoped that after the wedding, Hadiya could be produced in court by her own husband instead of Zainaba,” he says.
SP Santhosh says they found no criminal cases against Shefin, but for one related to campus politics. “We didn’t find any suspicious money transactions either,” he adds. Shefin admits that while in college he was a member of the Campus Front, the student outfit of the radical Muslim group Popular Front of India (PFI), and ran the Facebook page of the PFI’s political arm, SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India). One of the followers of that FB page, Mancy Buraqui, was arrested last year for suspected IS links. Shefin says Buraqui was removed from the page when this was revealed.
The PFI has now engaged advocates to fight Shefin’s case. Accusing police of trying to depict him as a terrorist, he says, “Last month I got a letter from the regional passport office asking why I had ‘suppressed’ four criminal cases against me. But I only had one criminal case, relating to a political clash on campus.”
On December 21, two days after their wedding, Hadiya returned to court with Shefin. But the court sent Hadiya to the hostel again, and ordered Shefin not to have any contact with her. They weren’t allowed to talk at subsequent hearings either. Then, on May 24, 2017, the high court nullified the marriage. Ordering a probe, it said, “A girl aged 24 is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited in many ways.”
At the same time, police officers understand where fears such as these spring from. Conversion efforts in Kerala are under investigation, particularly in the light of youth joining IS. “There are some who consider men marrying into another community heroes,” says an officer, adding that often their hands are tied as the two parties are adults.
Another officer associated with the case says, “Helping a convert is seen as an act that will pave the way to heaven. So an aspirant for Islam sees a battery of supporters.” Muhammed Roshan, a researcher on the Sociology of Religion at IIT-Madras, points out that conversions to Islam in India have largely happened through social interactions. “Unlike the Christian missionary movements, messages of Islam have transferred through interactions with Muslims at social settings… As this happened gradually, it never disturbed the social eco-system,” he says, adding that what has changed is emergence of Dammaj Salafi groups in Kerala, as opposed to Sufi, who believe in puritan Islam.
Hindu activist Rahul Easwar, who met Hadiya and her parents recently and released photos and a video that the family has objected to, says both Hindu and Muslim groups are trying to cash in on the controversy. Easwar, who has expressed dismay at Hadiya being kept in State confinement, adds that it is difficult to demarcate between conversion and forced conversion, and that there is no doubt that a concerted lobby is behind conversion.
However, Easwar, who belongs to the family of Sabarimala priests, says the reason why Hindus are getting attracted to Islam is the “spiritual vacuum” in the Hindu community. Hadiya, he says, “felt a lack of belonging in the Hindu community”.
It’s here that organisations like the Kochi-based Arsha Vidya Samajam step in. Started in 1999, K R Manoj, the head of the institution, is leading a movement to reconvert youth, mostly Hindu women, back to the religion. Earlier this year, he says, some of his volunteers had visited Hadiya at her parents’ request to counsel her to give up Islam.
However, he says, Hadiya was one of “the few projects we failed… she was very arrogant and adamant during the counselling sessions”. “Since 2009, we have reconverted some 3,000 youth, mostly young women, to Hindusim,” he says. While most of these cases were of Hindu-Muslim conversions, about 300 were of Hindu women who had converted to Christianity, he says.
Amidst the charges of forced conversion in the Hadiya case stands Markazul Hidaya of Manjeri in Malappuram district, better known as Sathya Sarani. It is run by a trust that has leaders of the PFI among its members. In July 2010, then Kerala chief minister V S Achuthanandan had accused the PFI, charged in many violent attacks, of promoting “Islamisation of Kerala”.
Manager Muhammed Rafi says no conversions happen at the institute, only religious teaching. “We don’t convert anyone, contrary to public perception. There is nothing mysterious here,” he says. When a new convert approaches the institute, Rafi adds, their antecedents are checked. “Besides, they have to furnish an affidavit, attested by a notary, that they have embraced Islam of their own free will.”
The manager also points out that police keep a close watch on the institute’s functioning, and frequently visit it to check up on “missing women”. “Whenever anyone is tracked to our institute, we duly produce them before police.” Police sources say that during a recent inspection, 52 inmates were found at the institute. Of them, 28 were Hindu converts, 16 Christian converts and eight Muslims. According to the institute, last year, 447 people attended courses at the college. This year, the figure stands at 264 so far.
In a petition filed by Shefin challenging the high court verdict, the Supreme Court last week ordered an NIA probe under the supervision of retired judge R V Raveendran. It agreed with the NIA contention that the Hadiya case did not appear to be an isolated one, and compared it to the Blue Whale Challenge.
It’s been eight months now that he talked to his wife, Shefin says. “She has been produced before the court several times since, but I was not allowed to speak to her. Her family and police don’t let me meet her, and she doesn’t have a phone,” says Shefin, who is staying in Chandanathopu, 12 km from Kollam, with an uncle. Forced to stay back, he has lost his job in Muscat.
SP Santhosh wonders what a new investigation would find. “Our probe didn’t find anything to make out a case against anyone… At no stage is there evidence of coercion,” he says. The officer adds, “Hadiya gave several statements that she became a Muslim on her own. As long as she sticks to that, no case can be framed… Now, let the NIA probe.” But Shefin hasn’t lost hope, he says. He shows a recent message Hadiya sent to his phone from her mother’s mobile. It reads, “Help me hadiya@akhila.”
August 2010: Akhila leaves home to join a homeopathy medical college in Salem, Tamil Nadu; becomes friends with two Muslim sisters
September 10, 2015: Akhila makes first attempt to convert, gets an affidavit attested from an advocate in Kochi saying she was living as a Muslim without anyone’s compulsion and wanted to take on the name Aasiya
November 2015: Refuses to join Hindu rituals at home on death of her grandfather
January 1, 2016: Leaves home for college, but instead, goes to Jaseena and sister Faseela’s home in Malappuram
January 2: At her insistence, says Jaseena’s father P Aboobacker, he takes her to an advocate, where she registers an affidavit saying she was embracing Islam of her own will
January 5: Aboobacker, who says he tried to dissuade her, refuses to help Akhila further, sends her back to college
January 6: Akhila attends college in Islamic dress. Her family learns about it. She approaches Islamic learning centre Sathya Sarani
January 8: shokan files case against Aboobacker
January 11: Aboobacker is arrested and faces charges of fomenting communal enmity, released after 2 days
January 12: Ashokan moves the first habeas corpus in high court
January 18: Akhila is produced before court, refuses to go with parents
January 21 to March 21: Akhila alias Hadiya stays at Sathya Sarani to learn about Islam
August 17: Ashokan moves a fresh writ petition in high court, alleging there is a move to take his daughter to Syria to fight for Islamic State
August 22: Court sends Hadiya to a hostel in Kochi
August 26: Hadiya gives an affidavit to court that she embraced Islam of her will
December 19: Hadiya gets married to Shefin Jahan of Kollam
December 21: HC criticises the marriage, sends Hadiya back to hostel. Tells Jahan not to meet her
May 24, 2017: Kerala HC nullifies the marriage, sends Hadiya back to her parents, puts her under police surveillance
August 16: On Jahan’s appeal against HC order, Supreme Court orders NIA probe
With inputs from Arun Janardhanan