Nothing akin to the national outrage that gathered force following the December 16, 2012 gangrape has gripped the country during the harrowing months of Hadiya’s confinement. Yet, Hadiya’s predicament is even more portentous for all Indian women. In this hiatus before the final verdict on the status of her marriage to Shafin, we must take stock of the multiple institutional betrayals of a young Indian woman. Now that she has exchanged one form of incarceration in the name of familial love for another that prolongs her social death, we must urgently ask how the institutions that were intended to serve, nurture or protect her arrived at this fatal unanimity.
That Hadiya has snatched a few moments of freedom to declare her wish — to follow her religion of choice, be with her husband, and complete her homeopathy course — as a citizen of India is an admirable sign of a survivor par excellence, and mental fortitude. But it is also a sordid reminder of how, over the last year, she has been repeatedly reminded that her own words, actions and decisions will neither be believed nor trusted, while an elaborate alternative vocabulary has been forged to justify her predicament. A great shiver went through each and every institution — family, college, court, ameliorative institutions and the state generally — leading them to betray her trust and violently redirect her destiny. If the outcry after December 16, 2012 was against the vulnerability of all Indian women, why has this concerted institutional assault been read so differently?
Let us begin with Hadiya’s parents who have enjoyed unexpected support for claiming what they believed was filial duty from their adult daughter. They paid for their only child’s education without taking a loan. They never allowed her to mix with unsavory people like Muslims. They were saving for her marriage to a doctor. They feel let down by a daughter who, despite their sacrifices, is ungrateful, no, deranged,
deserving no less than imprisonment in order to be brought back to her senses and to her parents. Although she declared her closeness to her father in court, the months of physical imprisonment in the family home made her refer, at the first independent chance she got, of having had to live among “people she hates”. Whose then is the desperate call of betrayal?
The second betrayal came from the Kerala High Court. Judicial grammar has been no less distrustful of Hadiya’s claims as an Indian, and never more loyal to the violent actions of the parents. When the Kerala High Court declared that “As per Indian tradition, the custody of an unmarried daughter is with the parents, until she is properly married”, it not only infantilised Hadiya but placed its formidable power at the service of Hindu kinship. Hadiya was violently recast as Akhila, the daughter to be held against her will, and saved from a marriage that the parents did not approve of.
The third betrayal has come from the highest investigative organ of the state: The National Investigation Agency, which is determined to prove the links of Shafin to the ISIS and, consequently, of the larger pattern of “love jihad”. Here, a foregone conclusion searches only for the proof. We have seen, in the last year, a Najeeb Ahmed go missing, with investigative mechanisms of the state showing great tardiness in their pursuit of the truth. We have heard none other than a Union Home Minister blithely allege that another student, Umar Khalid, was linked to Hafiz Saeed and the LeT, without a shred of evidence. The ways of the state’s investigative agencies, therefore, do not inspire faith. But without suggesting at all that any of this implies guilt on Shafin’s part, why must the “law take its own course” via Hadiya’s detention and torture?
Perhaps the answer lies in the short statement that her mother, Ponnamma, gave when she lost control of her daughter to the Salem principal. By raising the husband’s previous service in the CRPF, she hinted that the state was only doing what it owed them by placing its formidable apparatuses (the police, the NIA, the courts) at the service of an armed forces family. Ashokan too said no less when he urged the Supreme Court to heed the NIA rather than his daughter.
The fourth betrayal has come from the college: A space which should have given Hadiya a chance to assert her independence has reverted to the wishes of the parents, by holding her to her Hindu name, and placing her under a different set of restrictions. As more and more women enter spaces of higher education (46 per cent of those in Indian higher education today are women) and explore the relative freedoms of the campus, college and university administrations show an unseemly enthusiasm for curtailing women in the name of protection, to the extent of refusing them meatarian food (as in the Banaras Hindu University) or restricting movements and library access (Aligarh Muslim University). The predicament of Hadiya — being allowed to complete her course but under terms dictated by her principal — is not just an instance of this protectionist approach. It is a dark and terrifying warning.
The fifth betrayal has come from an unexpected source: The National Commission for Women. When its acting chairperson, Rekha Sharma, found Hadiya “happy, healthy, eating well, and not beaten up,” she felt reassured that house arrest was indeed the appropriate thing for a 24-year-old woman who had made her own choices. She did not bat an eyelash when she also reported that all that Hadiya wanted was to go out freely, which Sharma promised her would happen “when the media was not around.”
The final betrayal of Hadiya happened in the Supreme Court, where there was cruel delay in letting Hadiya be heard, even as she was made witness to judicial reasoning in which she could not intervene. When she finally spoke, the SC revealed its own deafness to the cry for gender justice and freedom to live her life with the husband and religion of her choice. The SC revealed shocking ignorance of the considerable distance that women had travelled from even 20 years ago. After sermonising that women are not chattels, the SC promptly placed Hadiya under the “guardianship” of her college principal, which the honourable judges believed was an act of gender blindness.
Each betrayal reveals that Hadiya is being protected from a range of enemies that she may not even be aware of: The Muslim man (her mother), the terrorist (her father), inappropriate marriage (the Kerala High Court), the media (the NCW acting chair), international terror conspiracies (NIA), and even herself (since she did not know that women were not chattels according to the Supreme Court). Each betrayal has diminished incalculably Indian womanhood and the strides it has made in contemporary India. Hadiya’s predicament teaches us how brittle, even reversible, the hard won freedoms of the past four decades could become.