The fortitude of a young woman who has held on to her position despite massive pressure from her family and the State was on display in court number one of the Supreme Court on Monday.
After a hearing that lasted almost two-and-a-half hours, during which the court sat well beyond 4.30 pm, the time its work day usually ends, Hadiya, whose conversion to Islam and marriage to a Muslim man last year created ripples across the country, was finally relieved from the custody of her father Ashokan.
But this was not before some drama in the courtroom. The matter was further complicated on Monday after the National Investigation Agency filed a report that allegedly showed a pattern of organised indoctrination in Kerala. The lawyers representing Hadiya’s father wanted the Supreme Court to first consider the evidence submitted by the anti-terror agency before interacting with the 25-year-old woman.
However, Kapil Sibal, the lawyer representing Hadiya’s former husband Shafin Jahan, vehemently opposed the suggestion, arguing that only the woman’s views mattered in the case. The Supreme Court finally decided to listen to Hadiya, who said she wanted freedom and the choice to live with Jahan. The Kerala High Court had annulled their marriage in May and had sent Hadiya to her father’s house, where she was confined so far.
Shafin Jahan reached court at around 2 pm while Hadiya arrived with tight security at 2.45 pm.
As the proceedings began at 3 pm, Shyam Diwan, the lawyer representing Hadiya’s father Ashokan, requested the court to reconsider its stand of holding an open hearing. Diwan said there was a serious threat to the woman’s life given how communally charged the matter had become. He also alleged that there was a huge network in Kerala that was into the business of converting young non-Muslim women to Islam in an organised manner. For the sake of protecting Hadiya’s privacy, the hearing should be in-camera, he said.
Diwan also submitted before the court a transcript of a voice recording of a person called Abdul Rasheed, who is alleged to be an Islamic State recruiter. Rasheed is believed to be associated with the Popular Front of India, an Islamic political organisation suspected of involvement in terror activity, with which Jahan is also alleged to have links.
However, the bench raised questions over the authenticity of the tapes.
A Facebook interaction between a person called Mansi Buraq, who was recently arrested by the National Investigation Agency, and Jahan, was also put before the bench. In the exchange, Jahan is allegedly inquiring about the price of recruiting for the Islamic State.
In the meantime, Additional Solicitor General Maninder Singh, representing the National Investigation Agency, referred to the report submitted by the agency, and said its findings were “extremely critical” to arrive at a conclusion in the case. He said it would demolish the basis of the marriage that took place between Hadiya and Jahan in December 2016.
Singh said there were 11 identical cases under investigation in Kerala, of which seven involved Satya Sarini, the same organisation that has been accused of indoctrinating Hadiya, who went by the name Akhila Ashokan before she converted to Islam. The lawyer added that such indoctrination is referred to as “neuro-linguistic programming”.
As Diwan and Singh pressed the bench to postpone its interaction with Hadiya, an agitated Sibal said he was disturbed by the manner in which the case was proceeding. “Instead of asking this adult woman what she wants, we are are looking at the venom which has filled news channels and Facebook,” he said. Sibal also questioned the authenticity of the tapes and transcripts produced by the opposing lawyers.
Sibal pointed out that when the Supreme Court asked for an NIA investigation in August, it had clearly said that it would take place under the supervision of a retired judge. The judge who had been appointed dropped out of the probe. “How can the state go ahead with the probe without the supervision,” he asked. “This is contempt of this court.”
Sibal stressed on individual autonomy as the only factor that needed to be considered in this case.
To this, Justice DY Chandrachud questioned what the threshold for determining autonomy should be. “What would be the guiding principles for the court to determine if the autonomy of an adult has been compromised?” he said. “And if we proceed with interviewing the girl in question, would that not amount to the court accepting that there has been no indoctrination?”
Chandrachud also pointed to a phenomenon called the “Stockholm syndrome”, a condition where hostages develop a psychological dependence on their captors.
Sibal said he was saddened by the fact that these questions were being raised before asking Hadiya what she wanted, and argued that the NIA has made U-turns in many cases. “If she wrongly chose her husband, she will face the consequences,” he said. “But we cannot question her choice.”
Diwan said it had to be determined whether a person has been indoctrinated as that would be a disability in exercising one’s autonomy.
When Chief Justice Dipak Misra intervened and said the court could look into the matter on Tuesday, Sibal protested. “This is not fair,” he said. “The lady is in the court on your request. There is no way we could answer to accusations made in these reports.”
He later apologised for his tone.
In the meantime, VV Giri, the counsel for Kerala, suggested that the court look at the evidence it deemed relevant and then talk to Hadiya. He said the idea was to not continue Hadiya’s custody but to ensure that her right to lead a dignified life under Article 21 of the Constitution was protected.
Following these exchanges, the bench finally decided to interact with Hadiya. The judges asked her some basic questions.
Justice Chandrachud sought to know what her dreams were for the future.
“I want freedom,” Hadiya told the jam-packed courtroom, that included her former husband and her father. “I want to remain true to my faith.” Hadiya also said that she had endured “mental harassment” for 11 months and that she wanted to spend some time with her friends.
When the bench suggested that the Kerala state government could be asked to foot the bill of her education expenses, Hadiya said: “I want to continue my studies but not on government funds when my husband can take care of it.”
She repeatedly said she wanted to see her husband.
When she said she would need a guardian in her college, the bench suggested they could appoint the college dean to that position. However, Hadiya said she wanted her husband to be her guardian. To this, Justice Chandrachud quipped: “Even I am not my wife’s guardian. A wife is not a chattel.”
Following the interaction, the bench directed that Hadiya be taken to Salem in Tamil Nadu to complete her studies. She was pursuing a course in homeopathy when the marriage took place. It is not clear if the court indeed appointed a guardian.
The bench also made it clear that she should be treated like any other student and that Kerala should make all arrangements for her travel. The matter was then adjourned to January 12.
However, the bench did not elaborate on whether there would be any conditions on her movement or whether she could meet her husband while in Salem. Since the bench said she should be treated like any other student, it could be assumed that there would be no additional restrictions on her in the hostel, over and above those applicable to other students.
The court also did not go into the status of her marriage, which it would probably take up in January as it analyses the NIA report. At the moment, the marriage remains annulled.
The written order was yet to be posted on the Supreme Court website at the time of publishing this report.
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