It’s not everyday that you see the National Commission for Women (NCW) at complete loggerheads with its state counterpart over the same issue, but intriguingly, that’s exactly what seems to be happening in Kerala right now. The ongoing Hadiya case has now pit the NCW and Kerala State Women’s Commission (KSWC) directly and publicly against each other, and the week’s headlines show them trading insults about each other’s beliefs and political motivations.
Hadiya (nee Akhila) is a homeopathy student from Kottayam who converted to Islam in 2011, and in 2016, formally changed her name and married a 28-year-old man named Shafin Jahan. This marriage was annulled by the Kerala High Court in May 2017, because the court felt that 24-year-old Hadiya was at a “vulnerable age” and had been brainwashed, and that the marriage itself was a “sham” designed to interfere with an earlier case Hadiya’s father had filed, where he submitted that Islamic groups were trying to take his daughter out of the country. In a further unexpected twist in August, the Supreme Court ordered an NIA probe into the allegations of “love jihad”. Through all this, Hadiya herself hasn’t been allowed so far to tell her side of the story to the Supreme Court (she’s now finally scheduled to appear later this month). Most worryingly, as per the High Court’s instructions, this adult woman continues to be held captive against her will in the “custody” of her parents at their residence in Kottayam.
The Chairperson of the NCW, Rekha Sharma, visited Kerala on Monday on a three-day fact-finding mission about “forced conversions” in the state, and to check up on Hadiya at her parents’ house. On Tuesday, Sharma unequivocally said that she’d found “forced conversions were taking place in Kerala”, and later, that these conversions was being backed by foreign funding and are a “different form of human trafficking”. She then impugned that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was “still not taking the issue seriously”, and suggested that he “might have seen the Aamir Khan movie where he says ‘all is well’, and is under the impression that all is well in the state.”.
MC Josephine, the chairperson of the Kerala State Women’s Commission, came out pretty strongly against Sharma’s serious allegations and seriously bad PJs, saying that Sharma’s remarks on false conversions were ill-informed and that the NCW wasn’t really aware of the ground realities in Kerala. Josephine also added that the NCW had not even consulted with the KSWC before meeting Hadiya, and was using the situation to try and defame Kerala’s image.
In this increasingly absurd ping pong, Sharma immediately retorted that Josephine’s statements were politically motivated, not hers.
So what’s really going on here? Why are the heads of two organisations working on women’s issues publicly attacking each other about a matter you’d assume they’d both easily agree on, given that an adult Indian woman’s right to freedom and liberty is at stake here?
The answer, as both ladies have suggested, is most likely politics.
Kerala, of course, currently presents a uniquely frustrating problem to the BJP-led Centre. It’s one of the few states where the BJP has almost no legislative foothold. In the last state election, only one person won a seat on the BJP’s ticket in Kerala, and that was Kummanam Rajasekaran (some locals quip he won because the people of Trivandrum felt sorry for making this well-loved guy cry when he lost the previous election). Over the last year, Kerala has been witness to a number of boring failed schemes by the BJP to boost its popularity there, like a “love jhad helpline” for Christian women. More recently on August 30th, the BJP had to hurriedly cancel a widely publicised yatra against Kerala’s supposed lawlessness because the dates coincided with the mob violence in BJP-ruled Haryana after the Dera Sacha Sauda verdict. It’s clear that the BJP is happy to take any electoral issue it can grab in Kerala, and Hadiya seems an ideal case of fear mongering for it, women’s rights be damned.
The NCW’s remarks on the allegedly rampant forced religious conversions in Kerala begin to sound dubious when you look at the people Sharma actually met to reach this conclusion. Several groups have been involved in this issue over the last few months, including multiple women’s groups, student activists and Muslim groups. According to news reports, Sharma only seems to have met Hadiya and her family, the families of other women who have converted to Islam against their parents’ wishes, the family of Nimisha alias Fathima who allegedly converted and joined ISIS in Afghanistan in July 2016, and Kerala DGP Loknath Behera. Three days of meeting with the parents of women who are unhappy with their daughter’ religious choices, plus a cop, hardly seems like enough ‘fact-finding’ to make any informed statement on such a complicated issue, let alone throw an allegation as serious as alternative forms of human trafficking.
Of course, it takes two to tango, and the KSWC hasn’t exactly come out of this shining either. The NCW’s entry into the Hadiya case comes in the context of the KSWC’s own disappointing response in the first place. The state commission apparently declined to meet Hadiya despite being petitioned by various groups from across the political spectrum, and only seemed to take action after months of pressure and petitions from activists and women’s groups. And in early October, the KSWC finally announced that it had compiled a report on the matter and sent it to the Supreme Court – but that because of the sensitive nature of its contents, the report would not be made public.
Meera Velayudhan, a professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, points out how indicative both the KSWC’s delay in response and response itself has been – even as it accuses the NCW of playing politics, its own failure to meaningfully address and engage with this crucial case hints at its own political constraints.
“The KSWC should have been transparent enough to address the representations of all the different sections that came with their concerns. They haven’t done that. Instead, it’s keeping silent and taking a strictly legalistic approach, saying that it has filed an SC report and that the report can’t be made an open document,” says Velayudhan. She points out that this is pretty different from how the Left usually approaches an issue, and that it’s interesting how no political groups or parties, even Left women groups, have taken firm, public stances or framed demands on this issue.
This hints at a deeper political and policy paralysis on both sides, considering the state government’s wariness of allowing the Centre to any scope to interfere in Kerala in even the smallest way. Velayudhan also points out that right-wing forces have cleverly taken advantage of this very silence created by the KSWC’s decision to keep their report private, which has muted a lot of the debate that would have otherwise ensued, allowing right wing voices to be amplified here.
It’s hard not to feel that just like the NCW, the state commission is caught in its own political web too – considering that the state government desperately wants to keep the Centre, and its instruments like the NCW, out of the state’s workings, and since the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) also maintains alliances across the spectrum of the political and social groups involved in this case, including the Popular Front of India (PFI), the messy politics of which might make it harder for them to take a clear, decisive stance though its own Women’s Commission.
So it seems that this Women’s Commission controversy is actually a clash between the BJP and the LDF. Or the RSS and the PFI. Or the right wing and the left wing. Or if you prefer, the state and Centre. Who knows anymore, and who cares? Because in the midst of all this back-and-forth between the women’s commissions, the Kerala government, the Central government, the NIA and two sets of courts, Hadiya herself seems to have fallen through the cracks.
We all seem to have forgotten the only thing that matters, and the one thing that the two women’s groups should agree on: that Hadiya converted and married out of her own free will, and is legally being held captive against her wishes. An Indian high court has annulled a grown woman’s marriage and placed her in the custody of her parents, completely eroding her most important fundamental rights—to freely practice faith, marry and live a free life.
Instead, this case has somehow become a political fight about ‘forced’ religious conversion, terrorists, love jihad and ISIS, when actually it’s about – once again – allowing an adult Indian woman to practice her most basic legal rights.
Co-published with Firstpost.