Divisive debate

Published : Nov 20, 2009 00:00 IST

in Thiruvananthapuram

THEY may sound silly, the oxymoronic phrase Love Jehad and its twin Romeo Jehad, but within a short time religious fundamentalist forces in Kerala have built a unique playhouse on them and started enacting a highly divisive drama. For sure, Kerala has been caught unawares and is at a loss about its dangerous portents.

Since it was first used, perhaps tongue-in-cheek then in the context of the arrival in Kottayam of Silja, a Hindu girl from south Karnataka who had left her parents to marry her lover Ashkar, a Muslim youth originally from Kannur, the term love jehad has become a potent weapon, capable of slicing through the secular fabric of Kerala society.

The proponents of the expression are, in addition to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, representing the Hindu Ezhava community, and the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC). As intended by these groups, it refers to the delicate issue of mostly campus and workplace romances involving young Muslim men and non-Muslim women. It has eventually come to be used as a metaphor for the highly sensitive allegation that Muslim fundamentalist groups with funds from abroad are using the services of motivated young men from the community to woo non-Muslim women as a religious strategy for forced conversion to Islam. When Siljas parents arrived in Kottayam with a group of people and the Karnataka Police in tow, all hell broke loose, with allegations in the local media that Ashkar had kidnapped her with the intention of cheating her into forcible conversion, as he had done with 22 other women earlier.

A complaint was filed by Siljas relatives at the Gandhi Nagar police station in Kottayam, and, notwithstanding the repeated denial of the accusations by Silja herself, the Hindu Aikya Vedi organised a dharna in front of the Islamic study centre at Vaarisseri near Kottayam where the girl, by then living with Ashkar in a rented home, was undergoing religious training. The commotion died down only after Silja convincingly stuck to her stand before the police and at the Kottayam Press Club, where she addressed a press conference on September 8 jointly with Ashkar. She said she was marrying Ashkar of her own free will and no one had compelled her to convert to Islam. But by then an uproar had seemingly begun in Karnataka, with similar allegations being raised by Hindutva organisations there and a habeas corpus petition being filed in the High Court by her father.

The phrase love jehad soon acquired menacing overtones in the local media when habeas corpus petitions were filed at the Kerala High Court by the relatives of two other girls who were MBA students at St. Johns College in Pathanamthitta.

The girls, both staying in the college hostel and hailing from Christian and Hindu families in Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam districts respectively, had reportedly grown a fascination for Shahan Sha, the dynamic leader of the Muslim Students Federation (MSF, the students wing of the Indian Union Muslim League), who was at the forefront of the agitations against the self-financing college management, demanding proper facilities for students. Following this, fellow students began to notice a visible change in the manner, appearance and religious orientation of the two girls, and soon, as the college authorities notified their parents, the girls disappeared, along with Shahan Sha. The former MSF leader had by then reportedly started associating himself with the Popular Front of India, an organisation with close links with the National Development Front (NDF) in Kerala, a radical Islamist organisation known for its aggressive propagation of Islam.

In response to the petitions filed by their parents, the girls appeared before the High Court on August 21 seeking its permission to live with their husbands, Shahan Sha and Sirajudeen. The latter was a bus conductor who had seemingly (and rather spontaneously) married one of the girls following her conversion to Islam. But as the High Court found that the marriages were not registered properly, it turned down their requests and asked them to be with their parents until the next hearing on August 18.

However, at the next hearing, held two days in advance at the behest of the two men, the girls made a dramatic volte-face. They told the court that they had indeed walked into a trap of religious indoctrination, forced conversion and eventual marriage with the men. Both the girls then said that they did not want to go back with the men and instead wanted to live with their parents.

Kerala was perplexed as to what to make of their sorry tale. For a section of the media and several non-Muslim organisations, however, it seemed to be the cue that they had been waiting for to launch a widespread campaign to back their claim of large-scale forced conversions, which they alleged were being undertaken in Kerala by Muslim fundamentalist groups using such love jehadis as motivated agents.

The most unexpected statement came from the Church, which itself had often been the target of Hindu fundamentalists for growing evangelistic activities in the State. The KCBCs Commission for Social Harmony and Vigilance made the startling allegation that a survey conducted in all the parishes under it had found that 2,866 Catholic women had been converted to Islam by the Romeo Jehadis. It also gave a detailed break-up of the women who converted to Islam in each of the 14 districts of the State. Similarly, the SNDP Yogam alleged that the Ezhava community, too, was being targeted by such forces and that nearly 500 women had been converted to Islam in recent years. According to leaders of the RSS and the BJP, nearly 4,000 non-Muslim women have so far been tricked into conversion by such love jehadis.

An impression soon gained ground that an organisation by the very name Love Jehad or Romeo Jehad had started functioning in Kerala and that it was receiving funds from abroad. There were also wild, unsubstantiated accusations that young Muslim men were being offered money, bikes, trendy attire and other support systems to woo several non-Muslim women into marriage and beget children and that these women were later being forced into illegal activities, including drug trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism.

It is a reflection of the competitive communal atmosphere sought to be created in the State through the love jehad controversy that an excerpt from an editorial in the NDF organ Tejas was promptly quoted in a subsequent article in the pro-BJP Janmabhoomi, arguably to raise the ire of its own loyal readers.

The Tejas editorial was quoted as saying: If young men embrace Islam, it is for terrorist activities; if young women do it, it is for Love Jehad. This propaganda is part of a well-planned secret strategy. Here, the police, certain sections of the media, even the courts are becoming tools in the hands of certain vested interests, for implementing their secret agendas. It is part of an evil design indeed that when Islam embraces, it becomes the singular cause for restlessness for some sections and they try to put an end to it. Muslims are mere victims of Hindu fascists. Even then, we are portrayed as the aggressors. Our aim is only to defend [ourselves] against aggression by Hindu fascists. The religious conversions undertaken by us are similar to those carried out by other religious sections. But Hindu fascists are hunting down and attacking those who come to Islam. World over, those who embrace Islam after studying its tenets in depth and being convinced about their higher value are on the increase. The enemies who have understood this fact are the ones who are generating such baseless reports.

The Janmabhoomi article, under the title The victims of love jihad and carrying a byline Sayed Muhammed, then went on to exhort its readers to stay clear of the new trap being laid for them by Muslim fundamentalism and the untruths that it was trying to propagate. It also said provocatively that the late novelist and writer Kamala Das, who had converted to Islam in her later years, was also a victim of love jehad in Kerala.

With their activities suddenly in the spotlight, fundamentalist Muslim organisations such as the NDF and the Popular Front of India (PFI) launched a counter-offensive in Kerala through public statements, articles, posters and seminars and generally asking the question, What is wrong with religious conversions? At many places in Kerala, a poster offensive launched by the PFI defending religious conversions met with a counter poster stream appearing on behalf of the RSS, leading to isolated incidents. Police officers said there were signs that such continuous sparring could lead to trouble soon in the State.

It was in the context of all this that, while hearing the anticipatory bail application of Shahan Sha and Sirajudeen (in the cases filed by the girls parents), the Kerala High Court asked the States Director-General of Police to submit a statement providing answers to the questions it had raised on the alleged love jehad activities.

In the report filed before the court on October 18, DGP Jacob Punnose said that no organisation or movement called Love Jehad or Romeo Jehad is so far identified as working in Kerala; there is no clear evidence regarding the operation of such an organisation; it is not established that any particular organisation is actively engaged in such compulsive religious conversions; and that there is no clear evidence regarding financial support from abroad for any such organisation, or connection between Love Jehad movement and counterfeiting, smuggling, drug trafficking and terrorist activities.

To the question how many school and college students and youngsters were thus converted to Islam in the last three years? the DGP said: Except for the two cases under consideration now, no specific complaints have been received regarding such compulsive love-based conversions and that in the two cases, the police have registered cases and are actively investigating the matter.

The DGP further said that though certain allegations have recently cropped up indicating that some organisations have devised plans for compulsive or deceitful religious conversions by winning over girls, no actionable information has been received by the police so far to confirm the fact that any organisation is indulging in such activities.

He, however, informed the court that a very large number of inter-religious marriages are taking place every year in the State and that many conversions are taking place on that basis even though the exact details or the exact numbers of such marriages are not readily available with any police agency. Significantly, then, the police chief went on to say in conclusion: At the same time, there are reasons to suspect that there are concerted attempts to persuade girls to change their religion after they fall in love with Muslim boys. There is also unconfirmed source information received by the department that some groups are actively working among youngsters encouraging conversions by such techniques; that young men who are engaged in such pursuits are said to be receiving funds from abroad directly or indirectly for purchasing clothes and vehicles and for availing legal help etc; and that they have links with other places in India also.

The two parts of the DGPs report seemed to contradict each other. Indeed, the High Court said that it was vague and that there is no reconciliation between the statements. The court has asked the DGP to file another report with supporting evidence and has sought reports from District Superintendents of Police and others by November 11, when the case next comes up for hearing.

Despite the apparent inconsistency, the DGPs preliminary statement seemed to have been drafted carefully and was perhaps deliberately left vague in order to reflect the complexity of the situation on the ground ever since the love jehad allegation came to the fore and mainstream political parties retreated from the scene to avoid burning their fingers on a sensitive issue.

As the controversy has proved now, several sections of mainstream Kerala society are yet to reconcile themselves to the radical changes that have been happening on the campuses in the State, especially with the mushrooming of self-financing professional colleges since the early 1990s (a strict no-no in frequently Left-ruled Kerala earlier) and the advent of more resources, mobile phones, computers and other high-tech communication tools that have changed the outlook of an entire generation of students. There are ample opportunities for a multi-religious, multifaceted student community and for young professionals at workplaces to get acquainted, stay in touch with or even fall in love with their campus mates or colleagues.

However, along with such a transformation has come a worrying trend of de-politicisation of campuses. In recent years, in the context of frequent agitations affecting the academic atmosphere in schools and colleges, the courts have been imposing several restrictions on political activity by students and have even allowed private college managements to ban student unions. But the vacuum left by mainstream student unions is now increasingly being occupied by organisations of various fundamentalist hues.

On the campuses of many colleges in Kerala, including those of government colleges, the Students Federation of India, the student wing of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) and until recently the reigning organisation, is being offered a stiff challenge by emerging groups such as the Campus Front, with their umbilical links to a non-secular and fundamentalist ideology.

This tendency has coincided with the decline of secular organisations of many other mainstream parties that were once very active on campuses, and the rise of a new generation of apolitical, educated and skilled young men and women. Many of them are from communities that have long been in the shadows in terms of educational, vocational or social opportunities and are now rallying themselves behind adamantly non-secular and divisive religious forces.

Inter-religious romances leading to conversion and marriage could be on the rise in the State. But we have no reliable statistics to show how many, or whether there is an increasing trend, or from which community to the other and so on. But wherever religious fundamentalist groups are active on campuses or where these youngsters come under the influence of such forces outside the campuses or workplaces, there are reports that they do face informal compulsion, especially on issues like marrying out of their fold. It could be happening in a few cases, or a few more. In certain instances, over-enthusiastic individuals take things a bit far, when informal compulsion takes the form of coercion. That is it. There is no discernible pattern in all this. And we do not really know what happens to the women who change their religion for love, whether they are living happily ever after or how many of them return to their parents and so on, until there are complaints. And complaints are rare. The allegations being raised now are definitely not based on facts and are highly exaggerated, a senior police officer told Frontline.

The mischief is out of the bag. The effort of the forces on both sides of the love jehad divide is to create such conflicts by promoting fundamentalist positions, projecting isolated incidents as the norm, distorting facts and events, and presenting rumours and falsehood as the truth. It is in fact a loveless jehad that civil society is now witnessing, and it could turn worse rapidly if secular discourse gets submerged and the communal cause wins the stage.

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