Two recent cases of young Hindu women adopting Islam against the wishes of their parents have snowballed into major controversies in Kerala. In both cases, the women told the Kerala High Court that they chose Islam of their own free will, but the court gave credence to fears that the conversions were carried out under the influence of radical Muslim organisations.

In the case of Akhila Ashokan, a 24-year-old medical student from Kottayam district who converted to Islam and changed her name to Hadiya in July 2016, the High Court confined her to her parents’ home and annulled her marriage in May 2017. The Supreme Court in August asked the National Investigation Agency to inquire into the possibility of a terror conspiracy.

The High Court was more restrained in the case of Athira, a 23-year-old computer science graduate from Kasargod district. In an order passed on July 31, it asked the police to “ensure that no influence shall be exerted on her by any radical groups which are involved in anti-national activities or forceful conversion of religions”.

Unlike some other states, Kerala does not have anti-conversion laws. But over the last decade, a rise in religious tensions and the emergence of hardline political organisations among both Muslim and Hindu communities have turned conversions into flashpoints. Even though there is no credible evidence to support the suggestion that Muslim groups are forcing others to convert to Islam, no political party has come forward to challenge this notion. Even the courts have shown a willingness to accept the narrative.

Athira’s return

When Athira moved out of her parents’ home in Uduma village on July 10, she left a letter in which she told her parents that she wanted to follow Islam, the police said. But her parents registered a complaint in the local police station, saying they feared their daughter would be abducted. They also filed a petition in the High Court.

On July 31, Athira appeared in the High Court. She told the judges she had embraced Islam of her own will. She said she was willing to go back to live with her parents provided they allowed her to practice her new religion. The parents agreed to the condition.

But, a month and a half later, Athira had not returned to Uduma. “We shifted her to a reconversion centre in Ernakulam district to bring her back to Hinduism,” her uncle, Pramod, a state government employee, told Scroll.in on September 15. “It is easy as she was not officially converted to Islam.”

On September 21, a select group of journalists in Ernakulam was allowed to meet Athira. “I am returning to Hinduism,” she said. In an interview to Times Now, Athira explained that she was attracted to Islam while studying computer science in college since most of her friends were Muslim. “They told me that Hindus worship stones. They even asked me how stones could protect people,” she said. Athira said she listened to the speeches of many Islamic scholars, including Zakir Naik. “All of them spoke about Hinduism based on unauthentic Puranas. They exhorted Islam is the only true religion and I began to believe in the supremacy of Islam.”

Athira clarified that she was not in touch with any Muslim organisations before she left home. “Their involvement happened after that,” she said. A relative of one of her friends was a member of the Popular Front of India, a hardline Islamic organisation. “They offered to help me after they read the letter I wrote before I left home.” Athira said her views on religion changed during the time she spent at the Hindu reconversion centre, Aarsha Vidya Samjam, in Ernakulam.

Aarsha Vidya Samajam office.  Photo credit: Arsha Vidya Samajam blog
Aarsha Vidya Samajam office. Photo credit: Arsha Vidya Samajam blog

Religious conversions are legal

In the absence of any credible evidence of forced religious conversions in the case of either Hadiya or Akhila, the willingness of the courts to accept the narrative of Hindutva organisations is striking. While some other states have controversial laws restricting religious conversions on grounds of fraud and allurement, Kerala does not. The state, in fact, officially recognises institutions that can conduct religious conversion ceremonies and issue certificates to the new converts. These certificates can be used to change the convert’s names in the official gazette.

While all Christian churches can issue such certificates, in the case of conversions to Hinduism, five organisations were given official recognition in 1987 – the Calicut Arya Samaj;
the Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham in Kottayam; and the Kerala Hindu Mission, the All India Dayananda Salvation Mission and the Sri Rama Dasa Mission Universal Society, all in Thiruvananthapuram.

In 2004, official recognition was extended to two Muslim organisations – the Therbiyathul Islam Sabha in Kozhikode and the Maunathul Islam Association in Ponnani.

Many of these institutions are old and follow long-established norms. Kozhikode is home to two of them – the Arya Samaj Mandir, which dates back to 1921, and the Therbiyathul Islam Sabha, which was established in 1936.

Arya Samaj Mandir in Kozhikode. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen
Arya Samaj Mandir in Kozhikode. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

The Arya Samaj Mandir in Kozhikode is hidden amidst tall buildings in a busy part of the city. The temple conducts Shuddi ceremonies, which, said Indrajit Singh, priest at the mandir, are two-hour-long pujas to convert a person to Hinduism. “We convert people who come to us with school certificate, identity card and self-attested affidavit stating that they are converting upon their own will.”

Singh said around 100 to 150 people embrace Hinduism every month at the Calicut Arya Samaj Mandir. “It includes both conversion and re-conversion. A majority of the conversions are done for marriages,” he said.

The Therbiyathul Islam Sabha is located away from the bustle of the city, facing the Arabian Sea at Mukhadar. Its residential campus accommodates 50 students. “Those who wish to convert to Islam should attend our 60-day course to learn all Islamic practices,” said Syed Hamza Bafakyh Thangal, general secretary of the Sabha.

Therbiyathul Islam Sabha office in Kozhikode. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen
Therbiyathul Islam Sabha office in Kozhikode. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

The Sabha follows strict guidelines before admitting a candidate. “We will not admit candidates without a notary-signed affidavit and identity card,” said Thangal. “We insist that all new joinees should come to the office with their parents on the first day of the course. We inform their parents if they fail to bring them.” The Sabha also submits details of all the candidates admitted to the police every month, added Thangal.

A hardline Islamic organisation

But newer religious outfits have been more controversial. Candidates rejected by the Sabha – Hadiya was one of them – often go to Markazul Hidaya Satya Sarani in Malappuram district for religious education.

Satya Sarni is run by the Popular Front of India, which was formed in 2006. Some of its founding members are reported to have been part of the Students Islamic Movement of India, an organisation that has been banned under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

The Popular Front of India attracted national attention after some of its cadres allegedly chopped the hands of a professor named TJ Joseph in Ernakulam in 2010 as revenge for setting an examination paper that contained a question that they claimed was an insult to Prophet Muhammad. Leaders of Popular Front of India have denied that any of its members had been involved in the incident.

Satya Sarani office in Manjeri, Malappuram district. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen
Satya Sarani office in Manjeri, Malappuram district. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Satya Sarani’s website says its mission is to “propagate Islam among Muslims and non-Muslims” and 500 volunteers are working towards this. “We offer residential 50-day course to those who are interested in learning about Islam,” said PFI state secretary, Nasarudheen Elamaram. “Our facility can accommodate 100 students.”

Satya Sarani’s manager Mohammed Rafi said the institution follows strict guidelines while admitting students. “We admit only Indian citizens who can understand Malayalam,” he said. “They should bring a notary-signed affidavit stating that they had embraced Islam or they are joining the course on their own and not because of external influence. We reject people with criminal antecedents.”

Rafi said around 3,000 people have studied at Satya Sarani over the last five years. “We run this institution with the help of donations,” he said. “We have been submitting audited accounts to the Income Tax department regularly and monthly admission records to Intelligence Bureau, Special Branch of the Kerala Police.”

Elamaram said Satya Sarani has never engaged in forced conversions. “It is not our policy,” he said. “We encourage neo-converts to Islam to live with their family. We do not separate people.”

The rise of Hindutva groups

Recent years have also seen the emergence of Hindutva groups that seek to counter conversions to Islam through reconversions.

Indrajit Singh, the priest of the Arya Samaj Mandir, said several people were brought to the temple for reconversion by the workers of RSS, Hindu Helpline and Hindu Help Desk. “We are happy to assist these outfits,” he said.

Launched by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal in 2010 in Pune, the Hindu Helpline is a telephone assistance service that aims to help Hindus combat “love jihad” – a term popularised by Hindutva organisations that allege a large-scale conspiracy by Muslim men to seduce Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam.

A post on the Hindu Helpline’s Facebook page on September 23 claimed that the organisation has so far “rescued” 8,500 girls who were victims of love jihad.

Athira’s uncle, Pramod, said Hindu Helpline had helped the family locate the reconversion centre. Repeated attempts to contact the organisation’s state convenor Pratheesh Vishwanath did not yield results. Vishwanath is best known for allegedly instigating the attack on Kerala House in New Delhi in 2015 for serving beef.

Hindu Help Desk was formed even more recently in 2016. P Gopakumar, the state convener of the organisation, said its main task was to offer legal assistance to the families of alleged love jihad victims. He attributed a fall in the state’s Hindu population to “Muslim youngsters feigning love and luring Hindu girls to their religion”. The share of Hindus in the state’s population declined from 56.2% in 2001 to 54.7% in 2011, while Muslim population rose by 24.7% to 26.6%. But this mirrors the long-term trend across India which experts say reflects higher fertility and greater life expectancy among Muslims. For Hindutva organisations, however, this is evidence of a conspiracy.

Gopakumar said the organisation has a presence in all districts of the state. “When we come to know about the conversion of Hindu girl to Islam, we provide the family legal assistance,” he said. “Later, we send them to reconversion centres in different parts of the state.”

The reconversion centre where Athira was taken by her family is called Arsha Vidya Samajam. KR Manoj, founder and director of Arsha Vidya Samajam recently wrote on Facebook that his organisation aimed to stop “anti-national religious conversions”. For this, it was working closely with other Hindu organisations in Kerala. “The institution keeps good equation with RSS, VHP, Hinud Aikya Vedi, Amruthanandamayi Mission, Chinmaya Mission, Kolathur Advaithashramam,” said Manoj. “We have taken the duty of bringing back Hindus who reconvert to other religions by engaging them in discussions.”

Silence of the left parties

Social critic J Devika, an associate professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, said that “love jihad” is a term coined by the Sangh Parivar to mask the caste divide in Hindu society. “Hindu upper caste society still considers the lower Ezhava community with contempt in Kerala,” she said. Hadiya’s parents belong to the Ezhava community, which is officially categoried as Other Backward Classes, while Athira’s family is part of the Scheduled Caste Vannan community. “Sangh Parivar has realised that this caste division in the Hindu society is hurting its political plans,” said Devika. “So ‘love jihad’ is their ploy to mask the caste division and reap electoral dividends in Kerala.”

The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) has so far maintained a silence on both the cases. But in 2010, party leader and former chief minister VS Achutanandan had accused the Popular Front of India of using “money and marriages” to convert non-Muslims with the aim of the Islamisation of Kerala.

Athira’s uncle Pramod said he is a supporter of the CPI(M) and rued that his party had failed to educate its members against the threat of love jihad. The area secretary of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the youth wing of CPI(M), A Siva Prasad, who hails from Athira’s village, said on Facebook that she was a victim of love jihad. He deleted his post reportedly after he was pulled up by the party.

Devika wondered why political parties in Kerala were reluctant to interfere in the human rights violation of Hadiya, who continues to be confined to her parents’ house against her wishes. “Hadiya’s is a case of judicial ghar wapsi [reconversion],” said Devika. “Women are easy targets. No one is bothered to protect their personal choices.”