Somewhere in a small town in Kerala, a woman cries inconsolably. We are ushered into a modest house, with nothing to suggest there are Gulf remittances flowing in. The windows are shut tight, the dark brown curtains hang ghoulishly and the door is quickly bolted before Cynthia* melts into a pool of sorrow, recalling her daughter. Tabitha* had been studying in a Gulf country since last August and walked out of a friend’s place where she was staying on March 20 this year, leaving behind only a handwritten note. Embellished with Arabic phrases and Quranic quotes, the note is a declaration to her parents that she converted to Islam of her own free will and so they should not worry about her.
Tabitha’s note left her Christian parents stunned, but after chatting with her over phone and WhatsApp, they agreed to let her practise the faith of her choice and asked her to return. But her replies were terse, indicating she didn’t want to return to a family that did not believe in Islam. Later, her parents learnt she was being helped by a Bahrain-based organisation called Discover Islam Society (DIS), which supports those who wish to convert to Islam or have recently converted in the Gulf. Interestingly, the two Indian languages in which the DIS website offers written material for Islamic studies are Telugu and Malayalam.
When Tabitha’s father requested DIS for a meeting with his daughter, he was blindfolded and taken to a shed where she came to meet him. Sporting a hijab, she was accompanied by two men who stayed through the meeting. The father claims she was covered in dust and seemed to be on the verge of tears. This meeting, instead of assuaging the parents’ fears, made them terribly worried about their daughter. Then, on May 20, Tabitha, now Mariyam, filed a police complaint in the Gulf country where she was living, accusing her parents of harassing her. She also switched off her phone, making it impossible for her parents to speak with her. All that they know since then is that she is staying in a Muslim home and may marry someone from the faith in the days to come.
Mariyam’s parents claim they had no idea of her desire to convert to Islam or any relationship with a Muslim man. They say the change she has undergone since is so thoroughgoing that they can’t even recognise her voice anymore. “When she came to India last December and stayed here for a month, she said nothing to suggest she wanted to change her religion,” says Cynthia. “And just two months later, we got that note. How did she decide so fast? We used to be a close-knit family, but now she has turned indifferent towards us. She speaks to us as if we are the devil. I believe her messages to us were full of lies.”
The Islamic concept of taqiyya, which justifies deceiving non-believers who persecute believers, seems to have come in handy for propagating the faith. Some parents feel their converted daughters hate them and see no problem in lying to them. They not only leave behind their parents, but also refuse to be tied down by non-Muslim husbands or even their own children.
Last June, two women—Merrin and Nimisha, who became Mariyam and Fathima, respectively, after embracing Islam—left Kerala to join Islamic militants in Afghanistan. With them were their husbands—Bestin Vincent and Bexin Vincent—who too had converted from Christianity and become Yahya and Isha, respectively. Nimisha, who hailed from Thiruvananthapuram and was enrolled in a Bachelor of Dental Surgery programme in Kasaragod, had converted allegedly to marry a Muslim, who, however, refused to marry her after the conversion. According to her mother Bindu K., the “conversion centre” then found Nimisha another neo-convert—Bexin. “They were married after just four days of acquaintance,” says Bindu.
The Kerala HC annulled the marriage of Shafin Jahan and Akhila, sent her back to her parents
Meanwhile, the Kerala High Court too has come into the picture. On May 24, the court, exercising parens patriate jurisdiction (“the monarch or any other authority regarded as the legal protector of citizens unable to protect themselves”), annulled the marriage of a 24-year-old medical student, Akhila, with Shafin Jahan, a member of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI). Akhila had converted to Islam before the marriage and assumed a new name—Hadiya. The judgment drew a lot of flak for infringing on the rights of a woman, whose right to choose her spouse and follow her religious beliefs is guaranteed by the Constitution of India. The court seemed to have been disturbed by the fact that the marriage had been arranged by a “conversion centre” and concealed from Akhila’s parents, leading it to believe that she married Jahan—“an accused in a criminal case, apart from being associated with persons having extremist links,” according to the verdict—as a means to transfer her guardianship from her father to Jahan, in order to avoid returning to her parents’ home. The court said the marriage was also a way to get her out of the country and ordered that Akhila be sent back to her parents.
According to lawyer P. Rajendran, it was also found that “A.S. Sainaba and the Sathya Sarani Trust (in Malappuram) had tried to deceive the court even as a habeas corpus writ (filed by Akhila’s father K.M. Ashokan to bring her back home) was being heard”. “Though the court was Akhila’s custodian, the organisation and Sainaba had failed to inform the court of her marriage,” says Rajendran. “Also, going by Jahan’s Facebook posts, he had visited the Yemen border. He also had links with Mansi Buraq, an ISIS agent arrested by the NIA last October and accused of conspiring to wage war on the country.” The court was also surprised by how she and Sainaba, who had modest incomes, managed to hire expensive lawyers.
Protest against the HC verdict
Protesting the verdict, the Muslim Ekopana Samithi, said to be close to the Popular Front of India (PFI) and SDPI, took to the streets on June 5, leading to arrests of at least six protesters. The next day, the organisation enforced a “dawn-to-dusk hartal” in Ernakulam. Malayalam writer M.N. Karassery too said he was disappointed with the way the court interfered with the right of a citizen. He called it “an injustice and a violation of democratic rights”.
P. Koya, editor of Malayalam newspaper Thejas, said to be close to PFI, calls the verdict “biased”. “It is in violation of the woman’s rights,” he says. “She appeared in court first after her father filed the habeas corpus writ and was allowed to go. Later, the father filed another habeas corpus alleging ISIS links etc. Her husband had met her through a matrimonial site. And yet the court nullified the marriage. In a country where living together is not illegal, an adult woman has been forcefully sent back to her parents by the police and is literally under house arrest with CCTV surveillance.”
Akhila was studying for a Bachelor of Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery in Shivaraj Homeopathy Medical College in Salem, Tamil Nadu. She is said to have been influenced by her friends—Jaseena and Faseena—and their father Aboobacker before she decided to convert to Islam. On January 7 last year, she left the college without finishing her term as house surgeon—or informing her parents—to join Sathya Sarani to learn about Islam. In Malappuram, she stayed with Sainaba. That’s when her father filed the first habeas corpus writ in the high court, which disposed of the case saying she, an adult, was free to live wherever she wanted. However, an interim order was passed to keep her under surveillance and not allow her to leave the country. She was also asked to produce proof of doing a course at Satya Sarani.
On August 17, 2016, Ashokan filed another writ petition on the ground that his daughter had expressed desire to go to Syria to look after sheep. He also submitted to the court the messages from his daughter that he had recorded. But when the case was taken up, the court was informed that she had been taken to an undisclosed location. When she subsequently appeared in the court, the court expressed disapproval of her staying with Sainaba. On December 19, Akhila gave an affidavit saying she would go back to Salem and complete her studies. But, on December 21, her next court appearance, she was already a married woman. Her wedding with Jahan had been conducted in Sainbaba’s house.
Sathya Sarani also figured in another case involving a country counsellor with a private firm in Palakkad who left home last June without informing her parents. When she—a Hindu woman, then 21—showed interest in Islam, she was introduced to Noufal, who started talking to her on the phone. “He was the perfect gentleman,” the woman says. “He wanted me to get married, but I wasn’t interested then. I was more attracted to Islam. He used to explain religious matters to me, and it truly meant a lot as no one had tried to clarify my doubts regarding the religion I was born into.” Noufal also apparently advised her to travel to Yemen to learn about the “true, untarnished form of Islam”.
Md Basheer C.P., former chairman of Sathya Sarani, however, insists no such woman from Palakkad had ever approached them and that he had never heard of Noufal before news reports mentioned him. The woman, who is in hiding, says she had not heard of ISIS when she left home. Her father approached the police, who traced her to the house of a woman named Farzana. “The police told me that 22 people had left the country to join the ISIS and described the atrocities committed by them,” she recalls. “When I mentioned this at Sathya Sarani, the people there said these were stories cooked up by Christians and Jews in the western countries. I got scared as I did not want to commit a crime in the name of any religion and decided to return. I had a new name, Ayesha, but had not converted to Islam. Later, at home, I was counselled by teachers of the Arsha Vidya Samajam. That’s how I gradually began to appreciate my own religion.”
“The neo-converts are usually between 20 to 30 years of age, sensitive and confused,” says C.K. Mohanan, legal counsel of the woman’s father. “Then they are alienated from their family, so they cannot go back home. Many have converted for love, but, in these instances, there was no pre-marital relationship between the partners. These women are willing to go to any extent to remain in the religion they have embraced, even if it means marrying a stranger outside the community they were born into.”
In 2016, the Indian Express reported that “data on conversion obtained by the police from various conversion centres shows that 5,793 people have embraced Islam in the last five years”. According to Arsha Vidya Samajam director K.R. Manoj, nearly 100 people approach them every month “to get deradicalised or return to the Hindu fold”. “Since 2009, at least 3,000 people who had converted to Islam or Christianity have come to us. We gradually bring them back to the Hindu fold. They are usually well-versed in their new religion, so we need to know those religions well in order to debate with them. I have studied comparative religion and our staff are competent at pointing out fallacies in other religions.”
Asked about forceful conversions, Basheer dismisses it as “RSS propaganda”, saying there have been none in Sathya Sarani since it was established in 1994. “It runs a two-month course for men and women who want to study about Islam,” he says. “The current batch has 50-odd students, of whom nearly 30 are Hindu or Christian. They may have heard about Islam from their friends or on the internet. We are transparent about our teachings and functioning. Anyone can come and see what we do. Officials come here every month to examine the details of the students and submit a report. Indian citizens have the right to embrace and propagate any religion. People are converting to all religions, not just Islam. If you check the government gazette, you will see how many people are converting and to which religions.”
ISIS suspects at a Kochi court
An intelligence source, however, claims that literature on Islamic Research Foundation (IRF) chief Zakir Naik can be found with “95 per cent of the fundamentalists”. “Naik is a big influence,” he says. For instance, the Palakkad woman says she was an “ardent fan”. “When I heard him, it was the first time I was listening to any religious preacher,” she recalls. Last July, Arshid Qureshi, PRO at IRF’s Mumbai office, was arrested by the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad and the Kerala Police. He was accused of recruiting youngsters from Kerala for the ISIS. Qureshi had allegedly converted Bestin, Bexin and Merrin, who went to Afghanistan last June. In a written statement to the police, Merrin’s brother Ebin Jacob alleged that Qureshi had tried to convert him too.
In another case that hit the headlines last year, computer engineer Abdul Rashid Abdullah and his wife Sonia Sebastian alias Ayesha, an MBA, who were working with Peace Educational Foundation (PEF), an organisation that runs 10 schools in Kerala, were accused of “radicalising” 22 youth from Padanna, Palakkad and Trikarippur. Abdullah had allegedly arranged the marriage between Nimisha and Bexin.
PEF was founded by M.M. Akbar in 2006 as a “Muslim initiative in education”. Outlook tried to contact Akbar, but his office said he was travelling abroad. Head of Operations Md Ameer admits Abdullah had worked with PEF as a head of the department for four years, but clarified that the alleged ISIS links had nothing to do with the foundation.
Similarly, Basheer insists nobody from the Sarani had joined any unlawful organisation, quickly adding the organisation cannot be blamed if someone does. “We are responsible for the students only during the time they study here. We can’t take responsibility for what they do later. We teach the basic tenets of Islam, its ideology and values. Anyone can see our syllabus,” he says. Koya agrees, and says the Sarani cannot be mixed up with “a section of Salafis who go to Yemen”.
Asked if Sathya Sarani encourages marriage among its students, Basheer says, “Men and women have separate hostels and little chance to meet. We don’t encourage marriages among them. In most cases, they find partners from outside. There have been rare instances where we arranged a marriage when they couldn’t find anyone on their own.”
On June 4, it was exactly a year since Nimisha’s mother had last heard from her. “She had sent us feelers thrice, indicating her wish to return,” she says. “When she came home once after converting in 2013, I called her Fathima. But she told me to call her Chinnuz. I don’t know where she is now. There were times when she wanted to buy a salwar kameez but wouldn’t, saying what’s the use of wearing something beautiful under the purdah. She was a brilliant student but, after she started donning the hijab, she had to stop going to college because she would be called a ‘terrorist’.”
According to Mohanan, the converted women get so isolated after marriage that they don’t want to go back home even if the marriage fails. “Perhaps they fear they would be killed if they leave Islam. After all, the penalty for apostasy is death. That’s why they say they went on their own and wish to continue as Muslims,” says the lawyer. There is also the threat of extremist groups attacking people critical of Islam. In 2010, PFI activists cut off the hand of T.J. Joseph, a Malayalam professor, for allegedly setting a question that insulted the Prophet. “These violent acts scare people,” says Manoj. “The protest march against the Akhila verdict was meant to create fear in people’s minds. We are seeing how people are radicalised in stages. They are first told that what their parents do is wrong, and later that the laws of the land are not in tandem with Islam. That’s when they get ready to wage war on the country.” Nimisha’s mother says she hears her Muslim friends say “she has now reached paradise”.
But refuting the allegation that the Sarani alienates students from their parents, Basheer says the parents do come and meet the students “every day, after working hours, from 4 pm to dusk. Only those parents who are at loggerheads with their children do not come to meet them.”
(*Names changed to protect identity)