Picture of poise – The Telegraph

There was a certain irony in the situation but the venerable judges of the Supreme Court seemed oblivious to it. On November 27, the now famous young woman from Kerala – Hadiya aka Akhila – stood before a bench of the chief justice of India, Dipak Misra, and his fellow judges, A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud, to face yet another interrogation in her long ordeal for freedom.

This was not her first encounter with the courts of law. She first appeared before the Kerala High Court nearly two years ago in January 2016 after her father, Asokan K.M., moved a habeas corpus petition. Her father refused to accept his daughter’s decision to convert to Islam and alleged that she had been “brainwashed” into taking that decision.

Hadiya insisted before the court that she had faced no coercion and refused to go home with her parents. Her father moved court again in August that year and Hadiya once again stood her ground. But after she chose to marry a young man called Shafin Jahan who she met through a matrimonial website, the Kerala High Court suddenly changed its stand.

On May 24, 2017 the high court annulled her marriage, accepted her father’s charge that she was converted forcibly and handed over Hadiya to her parents.

Shafin Jahan then appealed to the Supreme Court. On August 16, the apex court gave a curious order. It directed the National Investigation Agency to probe the allegations that Hindu girls were being forcibly converted to Islam by organizations linked to the Islamic State. But, under pressure from Jahan’s lawyers, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Hadiya’s version too.

That is what brought Hadiya to the highest court of the land last week. It provided an ideal opportunity to explore the charges of “indoctrination” and “brainwashing” that have been levelled by Hadiya’s father and backed – both tacitly and explicitly – by the Kerala government, the Kerala High Court, the NIA, and swathes of public opinion influenced by the prevailing Hindutva ideology.

The irony underlying the situation was brought out by the picture of poise Hadiya offered. Her case was all about “brainwashing” – but here she was, a woman confident of her views, firm in her convictions. Her father and his strong band of supporters may regard her as a victim of indoctrination. But Hadiya, before the Supreme Court, showed that she had withstood another kind of indoctrination – that imposed by her natal family as much as Kerala’s state and society.

That second round of indoctrination has not evoked much consternation. In fact, it is not even counted as indoctrination. Yet the facts show that while Hadiya chose to convert to Islam voluntarily, every effort has been made to force her to reconvert to the religion of her parents.

After the Kerala High Court annulled her marriage and ordered her to return to her family home, the 25-year-old woman who has qualified as a homeopathic doctor, was kept under virtual house arrest. According to Hadiya, the reconversion efforts were carried out by activists of the Siva Sakti Yoga Centre – an Ernakulam-based outfit that was closed down recently following complaints by women that they had been tortured and forced to reconvert.

In spite of this sustained pressure, Hadiya refused to succumb. At the very first opportunity she got to speak out, she told reporters that she wanted her “freedom” – the freedom to live by the tenets of the faith she had chosen, and with the man she had subsequently chosen to marry. She repeated this statement more than once before the bench of the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court partially acceded to Hadiya’s plea and refused to return her to her parents’ custody. Instead, they allowed her to continue her internship/housemanship “which she had left because of certain reasons” and directed that she be re-admitted to the Sivaraj Homeopathy Medical College in Salem, Tamil Nadu.

Given the ugly ideological battle being fought over Hadiya’s life and future, the Supreme Court order provides a window of relief. But it is also a great pity that the honourable judges of the apex court lost an opportunity to gently find out from Hadiya herself why she had chosen to convert. Her answers may have given all of us a greater insight into matters of faith and piety; provided us more clarity at a time our public discourse is clouded by a vicious Islamophobia that is itself a form of brainwashing.

After all, the story of Hadiya – poignant as it might be – is not just about one woman. It is inextricably entwined with a deep antipathy towards religious minorities, particularly Muslims, that has increased exponentially since the rise to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Hindu Right has always harboured a great fear and loathing for the Muslim male – portraying him as lustful and evil, preying on innocent Hindu women.

The efforts by BJP state governments to rewrite school history textbooks that vilify India’s composite heritage and malign India’s many-faceted Muslim rulers is a brainwashing exercise on a mass scale which, of course, no investigating agency or court of law will care to probe or criticize.

The current obsession with the fictional character of Padmavati is another instance of mass indoctrination. Schoolchildren will now be taught that a Rajput princess, conjured up by a poet’s imagination, preferred to commit suicide than give herself to an evil Muslim king – and be presented as the role model for Hindu women for all time to come.

Hadiya is the very antithesis of Padmavati – a young, educated, woman who has chosen a different faith and is ready to take on forces infinitely more powerful than herself to stand by her choice. In today’s world, where the followers of Donald Trump and M.S. Golwalkar share the same hatred for Islam, it is inconceivable that anyone can voluntarily choose to convert to that religion. It is so much easier to view such a move as a “conspiracy” hatched by “extremist” groups that want to make “terrorists” out of naïve Hindu girls.

The truth, of course, is much more complex. In mixed societies, where different religions coexist, it is entirely possible for individuals to be attracted to the tenets of a faith or ideology that their parents do not subscribe to. Religions do not spread only by the dint of the sword or material offerings; they also find new converts because of the power of their practice and their promise – be it mercy, charity, equality, austerity.

One reason there are more cases of conversions in Kerala (and not just to Islam) could be that there is a lot more interaction between people of different religions in that state; the process of segregation and ghettoisation of minorities hasn’t reached the levels witnessed in northern and western India yet.

Let us not forget that the famous Kerala writer and poet, Kamala Das (aka Madhavikutty), embraced Islam at the age of 67 in 1999. In an interview at the time, she said, “I have always had a strong affection for the Islamic way of life. I adopted two blind Muslim children… and they brought me close to Islam…”

Hadiya too learned of Islam from a classmate in the Salem college and found its principles appealing. Instead of seeing her as a victim of evil indoctrination and seeking to counter that with more brazen brainwashing, we need to hear in Hadiya’s words what she found appealing in Islam, still one of the great religions of the world. That would certainly be more enlightening in the times we live in than the trumped-up tales of Padmavati and her ilk.

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Article source: Kerala High Court

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