CLAIM: “Love jihad” is real because…Christians in Kerala first raised it.

In the summer of 2022, we contacted several Hindutva organisations that propagate the “love jihad” theory and sought interviews with them on the subject.

Alok Kumar, spokesperson of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), met us in his Delhi office.

“The word ‘love jihad’ was first used by the Christians in Kerala,” Kumar told us.

This is a common claim pushed by proponents of “love jihad”, possibly as validation that the theory is not an Islamophobic fantasy conjured up by Hindi-belt Hindutvavadis. The facts are a bit unclear. Some reports claim the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a Hindutva organisation, first began to use the term in Karnataka in 2007. Others point out that at the Catholic Bishops Council in Kerala in 2009, a bishop reportedly warned the gathering – without evidence – that Muslims were luring away Catholic girls.

What is more certain is that the term made its first official appearance in the proceedings of the Kerala High Court.

On August 7, 2009, two men petitioned the court, seeking its help with finding their daughters who had slipped out of their homes in the early hours of July 18. The men feared their daughters had been entrapped by a senior student who wanted to convert them to his religion in the garb of marriage.

The daughters were not minors. Both Mithula Madhavan and Bino Jacob were 23-year-old students pursuing a master’s in Business Administration from a college in Pathanamthitta district.

Mithula was Hindu. Bino was Christian. The senior student, Shahan Sha, was Muslim.

On August 12, Justices R Basant and MC Hari Rani of the Kerala High Court directed the police to form a Special Investigative Team to look for the women.

Nine days later, the women appeared in court – with their husbands. Mithula was now married to Shahan Sha; Bino to Shahan Sha’s friend, Sirajudeen. The women told the judges that they were in love with the men and had married them “voluntarily and willingly”. The judges recorded that the women “were reluctant to even speak to their parents”. But they persuaded them to go back with their parents: “it is only with much persuasion exercised by us in the interest of harmony that they agreed to speak to their parents and go with them”, they noted.

Among the conditions laid down by the judges was that the parents would allow the women to speak with their husbands on the phone and would bring them back to the court on August 28.

On August 24, however, the young men rushed back to the court, complaining that they had been denied access to their wives. The court summoned the women. When they showed up on August 26, they took a completely different stand – they said they “do not want to have anything to do” with their husbands.

Justices Basant and Hari Rani recorded in their order: “The reasons that prompt the alleged detenues to change their stand now…is of course a little confusing, but the fact remains that we have to respect the wishes and desire of the alleged detenues who have crossed the age of 22 years.”

The judges had felt no such need earlier, when they had sent them home with their parents, against their wishes.

14 years later, Shahan Sha still remembers the shock he felt when he saw Mithula’s face in court that day. “She looked drugged, her eyes were red,” he told us, when we met him in a public park in Kochi on an overcast day in July 2023. Now a manager in an e-commerce company, Shahan Sha lives a quiet life with his wife and children. He was initially reluctant to speak to us, but then ended up recounting the tumultuous events that had led to that day in 2009 – an account that also features in a petition he filed in the court.

Shahan Sha was born and raised in Pathanamth a town in central Kerala. His family was locally prominent. His grandfather was a district leader of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), an ally of the Congress. Shahan Sha himself was the district president of the Muslim Students Federation, the student wing of IUML. After completing a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology, he joined the MBA programme in a local college, which, despite its small size, had attracted students from across Kerala. “Many of them would come home,” Shahan Sha recalled. “My mother would cook biryani for them.” Among those were Mithula and her friend Bino.

The first time he had struck up a conversation with Mithula, he recalled, was when he had spotted her crying in the college library. The exchange gradually led to a friendship. In an email sent in March 2008, which is part of the court record, addressing him with a term of endearment “Shachettan”, Mithula wrote: “I was born into a lot of problems… No one in my family even remembers my birthday… When you know my problems, Shachettan’s mind will also be pained… For every problem u r my instant cure friend.”

Shahan Sha said he began to care for the troubled, softspoken woman. Love blossomed. In an email in May 2008, she wrote, “Didn’t Shachettan tell me once that you are scared of loving anyone? I also had the same fear till I met Shachettan. But I never felt that fear with Shachettan. That is why I loved so much and became close.”

Shahan Sha said he was anxious about the prospect of interfaith love, but Mithula was firm. “You should forgo any plans to abandon me. Everyone may lose me. And you should not be the reason for that,” she wrote in the email, signing off with: “May ALLAH b wit u…”

By this time, both Mithula and Bino had started studying Islam, Shahan Sha said. They were curious about religion, he claimed. When they came to his home, they borrowed books on Islam. Worried by their growing interest in Islam – and their closeness to Shahan Sha – the women’s parents took them out of college.

But they managed to stay in touch with Shahan Sha, texting him frequently on the phone. In July 2009, the messages and calls acquired a sense of urgency: Bino said her parents wanted to take her abroad, Mithula said her parents were planning to marry her off. They wanted to leave home and go to Ponnani, a centre for Islamic learning. Shahan Sha said he decided to help them escape.

But within days, the group realized that the police were looking for them. Shahan Sha recalled that his family was interrogated. They met a lawyer who advised them to get married – the court will send unmarried women back to their parents, he said. Shahan Sha’s friend, Sirajudeen, offered to marry Bino; she accepted his proposal. On August 12, the women converted to Islam and married the men in a religious ceremony.

Marriage eventually did not protect the young women. A two-judge bench sent them back to their parents. Facing criminal charges and fearing arrest, Shahan Sha and Sirajudeen filed bail applications. These came up before another judge, Justice KT Sankaran, on September 29. To their great shock, Justice Sankaran accepted the police’s version of events. More consequentially, he saw a larger conspiracy at play.

“It is stated that there is a movement or project which is called ‘Romeo Jihad’ or ‘Love Jihad’ conceived by a section of the Muslims,” he said. “It is stated that Muslim boys are directed to pretend love to girls of other religions and get them converted to Islam. Lot of money is available for executing the project. There are men whose help is available at any time. Organisations are also there to implement the project.”

The order did not specify the source of these assertions.

Justice Sankaran directed the Director General of Police (DGP) in Kerala to respond, within three weeks, to eight questions, starting with whether a “love jihad” movement existed within the state. He also sought replies from the central government.

Disclosure: Supriya Sharma is the Executive Editor of Scroll.

Excerpted with permission from Love Jihad and Other Fictions: Simple Facts to Counter Viral Falsehoods, Sreenivasan Jain, Mariyam Alavi, and Supriya Sharma, Aleph Book Company.