Couple can reunite in 'love jihad' case, top Indian court rules

Akhila Asokan, who converted to Islam in 2016 and took a new name, Hadiya, arrives at an airport in Kochi, India, on Nov 25, 2017.
Akhila Asokan, who converted to Islam in 2016 and took a new name, Hadiya, arrives at an airport in Kochi, India, on Nov 25, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) - India's Supreme Court has upheld the right of citizens to choose their spouse and convert to another religion, a landmark ruling in a case involving what right-wing Hindu nationalists refer to as "love jihad".

The judgement, which came on Monday (April 9), was seen as a blow to the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

The court's decision effectively ended a two-year quest by a father to nullify his daughter's marriage to a Muslim man in the southern state of Kerala, saying that she had been forced to convert to Islam.

The daughter says she acted of her own free will.

Right-wing Hindu nationalists have labelled the case an instance of what they call "love jihad", after a belief that India's minority Muslims will take over the country by persuading Hindu women to marry them and convert to Islam.

Hindus make up around 74 per cent of the country's population of 1.3 billion, and Muslims 14 per cent. Hindu nationalists also oppose conversions to Christianity.

Although India's Constitution is secular and provides protection to all faiths, the issue of "love jihad" has gripped headlines, pitting secular activists against their religious peers and government officials.

Ms Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said it was "sad for India that a court needs to remind the country of these very basic constitutional liberties".

"That there's an increasing group of people who think they can get away with forcing their ideology on people - that speaks to a lack of rule of law," she said. "The courts stopped two consenting adults from continuing their marriage."

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi - an avowed Hindu nationalist - came to power in 2014, sectarian violence has risen, according to a study by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government body.

Tuesday's Supreme Court decision is the culmination of a two-year battle between Hadiya, a 26-year-old student, and her father, Mr Asokan K.M.

When Hadiya converted to Islam in January 2016, her father filed a report with the police, claiming that his daughter's conversion had been coerced as part of an elaborate tactic by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to recruit her to fight in Syria.

Months later, she married a Muslim man, Mr Shafin Jahan, adding to her father's resolve to have his daughter placed in his custody, at the family home.

Hadiya, who was born Akhila Asokan and changed her name after converting, said she had converted of her own free will and did not even have a passport that would have enabled her to leave the country to join ISIS.

The high court of Kerala state, where the family lives, annulled the marriage last May, ruling that "a girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited".

Hadiya, who then returned to her family home, has told activists and the courts that her father beat her and committed her to a yoga centre, where she says she was tortured and forced to convert back to Hinduism. Hadiya's father declined to comment.

Her lawyer, Mr Haris Beeran, said on Tuesday that she was keeping a low profile. Worried about threats from right-wing Hindu nationalists, she filed an affidavit in the courts in February saying that she fears for her life.

Her husband, with whom she has been reunited, is being investigated by India's National Investigation Agency, a government counter-terrorism body, for possible links to radical Islamist groups.

His supporters call it a trumped-up charge to derail the couple's marriage in the courts by making it seem that her conversion was part of a larger Islamist plot.

"They have been married and forced to live away from each other for the past year, facing harassment from her family and the NIA," Mr Beeran said.

"They are relieved" after the court's verdict, he said.