Hadiya family feud: A battle of rights vs relationships
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Hadiya family feud: A battle of rights vs relationships

Even as the Supreme Court made it clear that the National Investigation Agency could not probe the marital status of Hadiya, her father refuses to give up his fight.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2018 08:17 IST
Snigdha Poonam
Snigdha Poonam
Hindustan Times, Kottayam/Salem
Hadiya,Akhila Ashokan,Kerala
24-year-old Hadiya at the Supreme Court after a hearing in New Delhi, on November 27, 2017. (Vipin Kumar/ Hindustan Times)

On January 23, when the Supreme Court ruled out further investigations into Hadiya’s marriage, her father KM Ashokan went through a series of reactions.

“You cannot investigate the marital aspect...you cannot investigate whether she married a good person or a bad person,” Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra said. At first, Ashokan didn’t believe what the bench was saying, then told himself he would believe the words when he saw them spelled out in a court order, and finally decided that he was going to file a fresh petition at the court.

Ashokan doesn’t like to give up. “I am a fauji (military man). I am ready to fight 24 hours,” he said, hunched under the shade of a palm grove outside his house in Kottayam. A driver with the Indian Army for 19 years, he went wherever he was sent on duty, from Ladakh to Assam. Now retired to the scenic, peaceful village where he was born, the 56- year-old retains the spirit of a fighter. Since 2016, he has been battling to pull his daughter back from Islam.

In August 2010, an 18-year-old Akhila Ashokan boarded a train to join a Bachelor’s programme at the well-known Sivaraj Homeopathy Medical College in Salem, Tamil Nadu. On January 6, 2016, the 24- year-old showed up at college wearing a headscarf — a development her father was informed about on the same day.

Since then, she and her father have been locked in a tug-of-war in which every word and action has had an equal and opposite reaction. She goes to live with the family of her Muslim friends, he files a court petition reporting illegal confinement; she marries a Muslim man, he files a petition to annul the marriage; she tells the court she wants to live with her husband, he convinces the court to send her back home. Now, after the order from the Supreme Court (SC), she may be able to live with her husband. Ashokan is preparing to file a petition that she not be allowed to leave the country.

The fighter

The short and gaunt Ashokan, who dresses in shirt-and-mundu, lives in a compact house, uses a feature phone, and can easily be taken for a simple man who would avoid police stations and courts. He says he was one until he heard about his daughter’s conversion. “I was visiting a local government office and shared my situation with a man I met there. He explained to me the concept of habeas corpus and suggested that I go for it.”

The father and the daughter rarely confront each other directly. “What is the point of talking? She hasn’t been in her right mind.” said Ashokan, glowering into the distance.

On November 26, 2017, when the father and the daughter travelled to Delhi from their home in Kottayam, where she had been living after a May 2017 order by the Kerala high court, to appear at the Supreme Court where her husband had filed an appeal against it, he did say a few words to her.

“I told her before we entered the Supreme Court, ‘say anything you want, become violent if suits you, I don’t care’.”

All he cares about, he says, is “saving” his daughter. For a self-professed atheist who lives in a middle-class neighbourhood with “no Muslims” and has “no Muslim friend”, Ashokan’s views on Islam are mainly borrowed. With every day he spends fighting this battle, Hadiya’s father seeks further validation of his notions, from reading posts about the ISIS recruitment from India to exchanging notes with Hindutva groups fighting “love jihad”.

In interview after interview, he has spoken of the “dangerous path” his daughter has chosen. He has also been worried about her association with members of the Popular Front of India, a Kerala-based Muslim organisation being investigated for Islamist fundamentalism and forced religions conversions. As he said in reaction to the SC’s remarks on Tuesday, no father would like his daughter turning into a “human bomb in an alien country”.

The man in the middle

Shafin Jahan happens to be the embodiment of all of Ashokan’s fears. A 27-year-old graduate of Islamic studies from south Kerala’s Kollam who works as a manager in Muscat, Jahan says he met Hadiya on a matrimonial website for Muslims. They got married at the house of Sainaba, a social worker and a leader of the Popular Front of India.

In the wedding photo he put up on Facebook, Jahan, tall and muscular, poses earnestly next to Hadiya, who stands smiling in a pink-and-gold wedding outfit. A member of the Social Democratic Party of India, the political front of the PFI, Jahan first crossed Ashokan by marrying her daughter on December 19, 2016, two days before the court was supposed to settle a place for her to stay while she pursued Islamic studies. If she wasn’t going to be sent back home, he wanted her dispatched to her college hostel in Salem.

Equally suspicious of the circumstances of their wedding, the Kerala high court annulled the marriage and sent Hadiya home with her father, where she would remain for almost a year, until her husband reached out to the Supreme Court.

After the apex court ordered the NIA in August 2017 to investigate what the high court had called a case of “love jihad”, and the agency claimed Shafi Jahan had been in touch with individuals accused of having IS links, Ashokan became more convinced of an “organised plot” to take his daughter to Syria.

Asked if he ever feels tired of fighting the battle, he said: “If I am tired, I smoke a cigarette, or I have two pegs (of alcohol) and fall asleep.”

Like father, like daughter

Like Ashokan, Hadiya isn’t known to change her mind once she decides something. “She looks small, but she is very strong,” said G Kannan, principal of her college in Salem, where she was sent by the SC to finish her studies, and her legal guardian. “She has concrete ideas, no one can change that,” he added.

Unlike Ashokan, Hadiya hasn’t fully narrated her version of the story yet. All she has said since the case was first reported is that she had been following Islam for a long time before she appeared in public in a hijab, that she was attracted to the religion after becoming friends with two Muslim girls in her college and noting their “good character”, and that she married Jahan of her own will through a matrimonial website.

She has also stated, clearly and firmly, her demand for “freedom” and her desire to live with her husband, the person she “loves the most”.

“I am demanding basic rights that every Indian citizen has. It has nothing to do with politics or caste. All I want is to talk to people I like,” she had said after the SC granted her freedom from her parents’ custody but only to put her under the control of her college.

Back in Salem, she sticks to a routine. “I wake up, pray, wash... the usual.” On the campus, where she moves between the lab and the library, Hadiya is hard to tell apart from the hundreds of other young women except for her hijab and the shy yet determined smile you see in her wedding photo. Asked how she felt about her half freedom, she fixed her gaze on the notebook in her lap and said she felt “normal”.

She went on to spend another two months at her college before SC asked the NIA to no longer look into the “marriage aspect” of the case. She was attending a class when she heard about it. “I went and told her what the court had said. She said she was happy,” said Kannan.

So was Jahan, who described his struggle as “harrowing”. “I feel we can lead a normal husband-wife life now,” he said. “Allah is supreme. Truth will prevail, always.”

Ashokan will continue to fight. He last spoke to his daughter two days before the latest Supreme Court hearing. It was a usual phone call. “I asked her if she was doing fine.”

Asked weeks before the January 23 court date how he would react if he loses in the end, he had said there wasn’t a chance.

“I can’t lose. Truth doesn’t lose.”

(Inputs from Ramesh Babu)

First Published: Jan 27, 2018 08:07 IST