"Do not use the love jihad narrative as an excuse to break-up inter-faith marriages," a bench of the Kerala High Court recently cautioned a lawyer arguing on behalf of the parents of a Hindu woman.
Sruthi Meledath, a Hindu woman from Kannur, had converted to Islam and married her classmate Anees Hameed. Her parents had then filed a habeas corpus petition in the court in May, and had challenged the validity of the wedding.
When her parents first went to court, Sruthi agreed to go with them. But after her husband filed a habeas corpus petition himself, she changed her mind.
Now, Sruthi lives with Anees in their home in Kannur.
"They were classmates and were in an affair for a couple of years. They told us that both their parents knew about the relationship and Sruthi's parents had warned her against pursuing it. But to what extent should parents control their children's preferences like that?" asks a police officer involved with the case, on condition of anonymity.
What has given Sruthi’s case larger overtones, however, is that the dispute went far beyond her family members. Sruthi alleged in court that her parents had taken her to the Siva Sakthi Yoga Kendra in Trippunithura near Kochi, and that she had been illegally confined there and harassed by counsellors and staff members of the yoga centre.
The love-jihad narrative
In recent months, a pervasive narrative of ‘love jihad’ – of Hindu women being converted to Islam and radicalised through marriages to Muslim men – has spread widely in Kerala. While many, including top police officials, have rejected the existence of any such phenomenon, this has done nothing to quell the vehement arguments of many Hindu groups that an organised racket exists.
For those who believe in the existence of these organised rackets, three controversial narratives have taken centrestage in the last year.
In July 2016, a Christian woman named Merrin and a Hindu woman named Nimisha converted to Islam and left to Afghanistan with their husbands to join the Islamic State. Their husbands, a pair of siblings named Bestin and Bexen, had also converted from Christianity to Islam.
Hadiya and Shafin Jahan
In early 2016, a Kottayam native named Akhila converted to Islam and took on the name Hadiya. As the subject of her conversion was being heard by the Kerala High Court, Hadiya married a Muslim man named Shafin Jahan, prompting a long battle into the validity of the marriage that has reached the doors of the Supreme Court.
The third case, that of a Hindu woman named Athira, has added a new dimension to the debate – the prospect of re-conversion to Hinduism. A native of Kasargod district, Athira walked out of her home in July and converted to Islam. Her parents then filed a habeas corpus petition and brought her back to their custody. Weeks later, Athira, who had embraced the name Ayesha, told media persons at a news conference that she had "returned" to Hinduism.
That these cases are being considered by more than just a few organisations has also given a fillip to the argument of love jihad. In a move that has gained widespread attention, the Supreme Court ordered the National Investigation Agency to conduct a probe into whether there were any organised groups pushing vulnerable Hindu women towards terrorism, based on which the NIA is reportedly probing 90 inter-faith marriages that took place within the last two years in Kerala.
A recognised space for conversions
Conversion is not illegal in Kerala and the state does not have a specific set of laws to prevent or regulate conversions, unlike certain other states in India. There are a designated set of government-recognized centres authorised to issue certificates of conversion that enable a convert to change his or her name in the official gazette.
In case of conversions to Hinduism, five authorised centres have been working in the state since the late 80s – the Arya Samajam (with branches in Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram), the Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham and the Sree Rama Das Mission based out of Thiruvananthapuram, the Kerala Hindu Mission based out of Ernakulam and the All India Dayananda Salvation Mission in Alappuzha.
Two organisations in the state are authorized to certify conversions of people to Islam: the Therbiyathul Islam Sabha in Kozhikode and the Maunathul Islam Association in Ponnani, Malappuram.
However, one of the persistent claims of the recent ‘love jihad’ narratives is that various madrassas and other Islamic organisations function as informal conversion centres. In response to this narrative, various Hindu centres have also been set up as re-conversion centres, where people are ‘educated’ back to the Hindu fold.
Re-conversion in Kerala
The major shift that has occurred in the recent past in Kerala is that various Hindu groups, which had largely worked in isolation, have become more organised in their approach to cases of conversion. These organisations work at three levels. Firstly, there are helplines that field calls from people who have converted to Islam or Christianity or from their family members.
These helplines then redirect certain cases to centres that conduct courses on the virtues of Hinduism, and on the flaws of other religions.
Then there are the re-conversion centres, which finally bring the neo-converts back into the fold of Hinduism.
Teaching yoga or carrying out ‘ghar wapsi’?
KR Manoj, the founder and director of Arsha Vidya Samajam, a centre that conducts courses on Hinduism, recently wrote on Facebook about the seamless co-operation between Hindu organisations at various levels. “The institution has a good equation with RSS, VHP, Hindu Aikya Vedi, Amruthanandamayi Mission, Chinmaya Mission and Kolathur Advaithashramam,” Manoj wrote.
Manoj himself has been at the centre of a major controversy over re-conversion, and was on the run recently, till he managed to procure anticipatory bail.
Manoj ran the Siva Sakthi Yoga Centre at Udayamperoor on Tripunithura road, where Sruthi Meledath and other women were allegedly illegally confined, and subjected to mental and physical harassment in an attempt to re-convert them to Hinduism.
Though the Yoga Centre is situated less than a kilometer away from the local police station, its activities had passed unnoticed until recently, when two women and a former employee came forward to reveal tales of torture and abuse going on within its walls.
The allegations against the Siva Sakthi Yoga Centre came to the fore when a Hindu woman Swetha, complained to the Udayamperoor police station that she was tricked by her parents to visit the Yoga Centre, where she was illegally confined for 22 days. In the Centre, she was harassed in the name of counselling, in an attempt to convince her to leave her Christian husband or convince him to convert to Hinduism, alleged Swetha.
Her allegations were bolstered by Sruthi’s revelations in court on her experience at the centre. Subsequently, AV Krishnakumar, a former instructor at the centre, filed an application to implead himself into the case, in which he alleged that inmates at that centre were subjected to torture. He even reportedly alleged that some of the women inmates had been sexually harassed.
When TNM visited the Centre last week, the remnants of a torn signboard welcomed us, the only remaining visible sign that the house had been a yoga centre.
A woman caretaker said that of the 65 inmates (mostly women) housed at the centre, three were still living there.
“Many of the inmates have returned home after the issue. Some are still here, once their parents come they will also leave,” said a staff member.
Thick trees have been planted all along the compound wall lining the property, blocking off the view of the centre from outside. A few residents living next to the Centre told TNM that they had no idea that so many women were being kept in the house.
“Earlier there were no trees or plants along the wall, but since a few months ago they have grown to protect their privacy. Although they had invited all of us for the Centre's inauguration two years ago, none of us attended," said one resident.
The only way neighbours realised that there were several women living in the Centre was because they could see several sets of laundry hung to dry on the clothesline in the compound.
"I have not seen many of them. We did not know what exactly was happening there. At times we could hear loud music from the house,” said another neighbour.
Rajeev, an autorickshaw driver, who plies customers to the area regularly said, "Of course I have previously dropped off people to that centre. But who in their dreams would think that such things are going on in that house? If you or I rent out a house and put up a board declaring that it’s a yoga centre, will people actually go in and check what's happening there?"
The cloud of controversy that has enveloped the Siva Sakthi Yoga Centre has raised suspicions against similar re-conversion centres, that their methods of bringing converts back to the Hindu fold may not be ethical or even legal.
The Hindu helplines’ legal efforts against conversions
One of the earliest to jump on the re-conversion wagon was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which helped set up a Hindu helpline in 2009, to "facilitate re-conversions to Hinduism."
In its nearly eight years of operation, the Hindu Helpline, which works out of Ernakulam, claims to have attended to 12,000 "love jihad" cases. Of these, the helpline boasts of having "saved" at least 8,500 women.
The helpline works in close association with Manoj’s Arsha Vidya Samajam for ‘Islamic de-radicalisation’. According to the Helpline’s State Coordinator Pratheesh Viswanath, "all non-Hindus were originally Hindus", and therefore the work carried out by the five authorised Hindu conversion centres is not conversion, but "re-conversion."
The helpline’s biggest intervention comes in the form of providing legal assistance to families converts. In the years since its inception, the helpline has filed at least 3000 habeas corpus petitions, mostly on behalf of parents.
The Helpline, however, does not directly involve itself in ‘education’ or re-conversion efforts, and only routes people to counsellors, classes and re-conversion centres.
"We do not directly give any counselling, neither do we take any religion classes for them. Our role is to find Hindu parents in distress and provide them legal advice to get their daughters back," said Joint Coordinator Rajeesh.
He added that the helpline is in touch with at least 20 counsellors, whose help is sought on a case-by-case basis.
Another helpline called the Hindu Helpdesk was formed in 2016. P Gopakumar, the state convener of the organisation, told Scroll.in that their main task was to offer legal assistance to the families of alleged love jihad victims.
The belief that the ‘enemy’ has invisible tentacles all over is what drives these organisations. Hindu organisations in Kerala believe that many Islamic conversion centres operate covertly in Malappuram and Kozhikode districts.
"These small Islamic study centres function out of madrassas, or under a charitable trust. They take people there to learn Islam and then later take them to the two authorized centres to get conversion certificates," Rajeesh claimed.
One of the major objections to the ‘love jihad’ narrative is that there has not been a single case where it has been proven in a court of law that a marriage was carried out for the purpose of converting women into Islam. But this has not stood in the way of a growing narrative that has even caught the attention of the courts. Whether or not that evidence emerges in the future, it is clear that the fear of ‘love jihad’ has found a firm place in popular imagination, as have efforts to stop conversion and bring women back into the Hindu fold.