CHENNAI: On Wednesday, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath was in Kerala to take part in the BJP's political activity in Kannur. It didn't take long for him to bring up the topic of Hindu women marrying Muslim men and converting to Islam.
In the eyes of the Hindu right wing, and indeed the Catholic right wing in Kerala, there is an organised campaign afoot, funded by shadow agencies abroad, to lure Hindu women into marriage and convert them to Islam.
Sloganeers quickly coined the phrase Love Jihad to describe the alleged phenomenon.
Kerala has been the epicentre of this controversy ever since it cropped up in 2009. It is back in the news again because of the case of a 24-year-old Hindu woman who married a Muslim man against the wishes of her parents, converted to Islam and took the name Hadiya. The parents took the case to the High Court of Kerala, which annulled the marriage back in May and restored the woman's custody to her parents, although she's not a minor.
Two days ago, on Tuesday, the Supreme Court questioned the High Court's basis for annulment of the marriage and the justification for questioning the judgement of an adult in choosing her partner in marriage.
Love jihad has been a hotly debated issue, not just in Kerala, but throughout India. However, it was in the south Indian state that most of the drama has happened. The bogey of Muslim men enticing women of other faiths into marriage and converting them to Islam has even brought together Kerala’s Catholic Church and Hindu extremist organisations.
Claims of love jihad have been around for a while
While the case of Hadiya, aka Akhila, has been capturing the headlines ever since the High Court's annulment verdict in May, today, it's not been the first time that the issue made news nationally.
It was in March 2009 that the Love Jihad controversy began to stir up Kerala. A Malayalam daily sparked it all off by claiming that an Islamic organisation named “Love Jihad” was luring young women of Kerala in marrying Muslim men. Soon, Christian organisations, notably the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Conference started 'awareness campaigns' to counter it. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) responded with its own initiatives, including the establishment of a 'Love Jihad Helpline', which reportedly received 1500 calls per month during the initial months.
In September 2009, parents of Hindu girls took their Love Jihad pleas to the Kerala High Court, which asked the state's director-general of police (DGP) to investigate if there indeed was such a campaign afoot.
Taking up that cue later that very month, the High Court in neighbouring Karnataka too ordered an investigation to ascertain whether Muslim men were practising Love Jihad.
The involvement of the judiciary and state authorities in such a divisive issue captured national and international attention. The US Embassy in India reported back to its principals in Washington on the Love Jihad controversy. “An alleged conspiracy of ‘foreign-funded’ Muslim men attempting to seduce, marry, and convert Hindu and Christian women, has led to state-level investigations and generated widespread suspicions in South India,” the embassy remarked in a 2010 telegram -- which was leaked by Wikileaks -- to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Although the National Investigation Agency (NIA) did find that there have been conversions of women of other faiths into Islam, whether these conversions were forced or consensual is not yet clear.
The Love Jihad issue has been playing out in Kerala against the backdrop of a surge in communal clashes in the northern parts of the state, which has seen several murders and riots between left wing and Hindu right supporters. Clashes between Hindu right-wing organisations like the Aikya Vedi, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Popular Front of India, an Islamic organisation too are not rare. The PFI has been repeatedly charged with alleged involvement in anti-national activities, including supporting banned organisations like the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).
Right-wing Hindu groups such as the RSS accuse PFI of waging a campaign to 'Islamise' Kerala. A part of that strategy, they say, is Love Jihad, the seduction of women into the Islamic faith. In August 2016, the Hindu Aikya Vedi took out a protest march to the Sathya Sarani religious study centre, an Islamic study centre, claiming that Muslim outfits are using the centre for proselytising.
Islamic State stronghold in India?
All this drama has been played out even as the National Investigation Agency has unearthed radicalisation of Keralites and recruitment of several Muslim youths by Islamic State. The fact that a large number of Keralites live and work in the Gulf countries adds to the atmosphere of suspicion.
Earlier this year, the NIA busted an Islamic State terror module in the north Kerala district of Malappuram. Months earlier, news had broken out that 21 youth left Kerala to fight for Islamic State in Afghanistan.
Due to the Gulf connection, Kerala has been subject to Wahhabi influence. Individuals based in Saudi Arabia have flushed money into northern Kerala. The funds go into the construction of mosques and madrassas that preach the Saudi brand of Islam.
The Intelligence Bureau has time and again warned the Kerala government of radicalisation in the state’s northern districts.
It is not perhaps a coincidence that most of the Love Jihad cases have been reported from northern Kerala.