The dangers of conversion by other means
RECENTLY, A 25-year-old woman filed a plea in the Kerala High Court claiming that she was forcefully converted to Islam and that an attempt was made to make her join the ISIS in Syria. She further claimed that she was a ‘victim of forceful conversion, fraudulent marriage, and attempt to sexual slavery’. This is only the latest in a string of inter- religious marriages to rock Kerala, where ‘love jihad’ is one of the most hotly discussed issues today.
The term ‘love jihad’ has been painted as a politically motivated issue and as an attempt to malign a particular community. At the same time, the suffix ‘jihad’, which, as per religious text, means ‘striving to uphold the cause of God’, has been misinterpreted by certain sections of that community as a war for religion waged to protect and expand Islamism.
Love jihad is a clear and present danger, a conscious, planned effort where non-Muslim women are lured into relationships and married to Muslims with the objective of converting them to Islam. Interestingly, the term and definition are being used in ongoing cases in the highest courts of the country.
It becomes pertinent to examine if love jihad or ‘Romeo jihad’, as some call it, is merely a ploy to convert or has more grievous connotations. Could it also be a form of human trafficking, an organised movement under the patronage of terrorist or separatist groups? The seriousness and peril engraved in the act are now coming to the fore and the Supreme Court has asked for a thorough investigation into its modus operandi.
Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (called as UN Palermo Protocol of 2000) defines Human Trafficking as ‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs’.
The above definition of trafficking, dating back to the year 2000, is too generic and does not look beyond conventional ways of trafficking. The conventional purposes of trafficking were sexual exploitation, forced labour and the removal of organs. Globally, all other dimensions, which were later realised to be trafficking, are accommodated within the broad term of slavery.
Although trafficking for sex is a widely discussed issue, the problem of bride trafficking is overlooked because of the sanctity that a formally solemnised marriage has been accorded by society. Unfortunately, any nefarious intentions that may lurk beneath the garb of marriage do not get much attention. Hence, recruitment through marriage for exploitation is one of the safest methods of trafficking.
The strongest case that is made for normalising love jihad is that it involves the consent of two adults. In case of human trafficking, however, the consent of an adult becomes null and void if there is a use of threat, force, coercion, abduction, fraud or deception, or abuse of power or vulnerability. The recruitment process in cases of love jihad has to be examined considering these factors.
The precondition in love jihad marriages is the religious conversion of the girl. But this condition is usually revealed to her only after she has fallen in love. Professional traffickers target vulnerable women, as was corroborated in a submission by Additional Solicitor General Maninder Singh before the Supreme Court in Slp (crl.) No. 5777 of 2017, based on an assessment of the National Investigation Agency (NIA). He said that ‘they seem to approach young girls who appear distressed because of disagreement with parents’.
In a conservative society, a social stigma is an important deterrent to adventurism, as the fear of social ostracism is always looming. It is this psychological weakness which forces the girl to accept conversion, as she realises she has crossed a point of no return. Perceived love mixed with fear of ostracism and the stigma that comes with it are the reasons for the girl’s ‘acceptance’ of the proposition to convert. In a very planned way, the girl is made vulnerable and her vulnerability exploited.
In a conservative society, a social stigma is an important deterrent to adventurism, as the fear of social ostracism is always looming. It is this psychological weakness which forces the girl to accept conversion
Another aspect of recruitment, which brings the act of love jihad into the domain of trafficking, is the ‘giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim’. This has been established by police in its submission before the Kerala High Court of Kerala in Bail Application No. 5,288 of 2009 in Shahan Sha A vs the State Of Kerala before Justice KT Sankaran. The Kerala Police accepted that ‘there is also unconfirmed source information received by the department that some groups are actively working among youngsters encouraging conversions by such techniques; those 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’. The Special Branch had observed in its report that ‘some other Muslim fundamental organisations are also arranging money from some foreign countries in the Gulf’.
The target victims are often girls from professional colleges. A report submitted by law enforcement says, ‘As per the available information, the plan of this organisation is to trap brilliant upper caste Hindu and Christian girls from well-to-do families, especially those who are studying for professional courses and employed in the IT sector.’ The organisations identified by the Special Branch are ‘fundamental outfits like NDF, PFI, Campus Front’ which have their roots in college campuses. Organisations in Saudi Arabia have been known to provide financial assistance to these activities under the guise of youth ‘scholarships’.
Love jihad is different from any other inter-religious marriage for two main reasons. One, it is an organised effort involving many players working in sync to trap a girl. The recruiter is identified, trained and funded; the other stakeholders in the network are assigned tasks to facilitate recruitment and transit of the victim to the destination. The second feature that sets a love jihad marriage apart is its prime purpose—conversion. The purpose post-marriage, however, still remains to be investigated.
A division bench comprising Justice Pius C Kuriakose and Justice Babu Mathew P Joseph rejected the idea of religious conversion being a basis for marriage and opined that if religious conversion is a precondition in a marriage, then such cases would imply forcible, compulsive or deceitful conversion. The bench was of the opinion that love has no barriers of religion, caste or creed, and under the pretext of love, there cannot be any forcible, compulsive or deceitful conversion.
Further, the Ministry of Home Affairs has submitted that secularism is a basic principle of the Indian Constitution under Article 25 of the Constitution of India. However, ‘the freedom guaranteed by the Constitution is to profess, practice, and propagate religion… Any use of force or allurement for the propagation of religion is illegal and may cause law and order problems’.
In love jihad, conversion is the initial purpose of marriage. Certainly, in view of both the Ministry of Home Affairs and the honourable Court, if conversion is a precondition, then love jihad must be deemed illegal. From the human trafficking perspective, if the means adopted for recruitment are force, coercion or deceit and the purpose is exploitation, then it should be considered as human trafficking. Conversion is a tool to disarm the victim and make her vulnerable to exploitation.
New converts are alienated from family and community, who are typically opposed to their radical move, leaving them with no option but to cement their belief in the religious doctrines they have been asked to embrace. By the time they realise they have fallen into a trap, it is too late and the situation is already beyond their control.
Post conversion, girls could be sent abroad and exploited, either as members in a terrorist outfit, or as ‘comfort girls’, exploited sexually to gratify the terrorists. They can also be forced into labour
Not only do they feel alienated by their own community, they are not readily accepted by Muslims because of the cultural disparities between the communities. Due to isolation and alienation, the converts can only interact with radicals and are therefore easily radicalised themselves. John Horgan of Georgia State University has shown this in a survey and termed the phenomenon ‘Double Marginalisation’.
If the convert is a girl then her vulnerability is more severe. Her interaction is further restricted and she is completely dependent on her spouse or other members of the trafficking network, and hence is more susceptible to their views.
The only known certainty in love jihad is conversion as a prerequisite to marriage. Unfortunately, there is not much research done on the post-marriage role of the victim. The role assigned to the girl post marriage has to be tracked.
In Kerala, there are numerous cases of the girl migrating with her husband to Gulf countries, after which later there is no information available about the status of the girl. With reports of a large number of youth getting attracted to the ideology of ISIS, it becomes important to track down the number of such girls who have vanished.
In August 2017, Chief Justice JS Khehar, as part of a bench, allowed the National Investigation Agency, the country’s top counter-terror body, to examine if Akhila Asokan, known as Hadiya after she converted, had been lured into marrying a Muslim man as part of a larger conspiracy by terrorist groups to recruit vulnerable young Hindu women. In fact, the Supreme Court has asked the NIA to investigate 90 cases of indoctrination and radicalisation registered in Kerala.
On October 31st, 2017, India Today telecast a video, shot in a sting operation, of Zainaba AS, the National President of the PFI Women’s wing. In the video, Zainaba admitted the clandestine role of the Sathyasarani organisation in conversion. She even went on to name the other organisations that were the legal face for conversion. Zainaba has been alleged to play a major part in the conversion of Akhila. She has also admitted to forcefully detaining prospective converts under the conversion programme run in the institution.
Once a victim is in captivity, psychological and physical methods are used to detain them. Psychological means include the glorification of the perpetrators through indoctrination and constant pestering after conversion, fanning the fear of rejection in case of a return, threatening to harm the girl or her family, and showcasing the support or complicity of the government and law enforcement, making them believe in the strength of the recruiters and in their own helplessness.
Post conversion, girls could be sent abroad and exploited, either as members in a terrorist outfit after indoctrination, or as ‘comfort girls’, exploited sexually to gratify the terrorists. They can also be forced into labour. In the Akhila Asokan case, the father of the converted girl has said that he suspects love jihad may be the latest method of recruitment by ISIS. He fears that his own daughter may be taken to Syria. His apprehension is not a wild speculation.
Take the case of Nimisha, a dental college student in Kasaragod who was pursued by Sajjad Rahman, a co-student in a coaching centre. The relationship got serious and Nimisha was converted, although Rahman himself did not marry her. He got her married to Bekson-turned-Isa, a boy who had converted to Islam from Christianity. She finally landed up on the Afghan-Syria border with her husband. Later it was revealed that Isa’s brother Bestin, who after converting to Islam had changed his name to Yahiya, was reportedly killed in a US drone attack.
This case clearly indicates that recruitment was planned and that it involved many people. It is alleged that Rahman is a recruiter who traps girls into relationships and facilitates conversion. All components of human trafficking are reflected in the case.
As far back as in 2009, pieces of evidence have been produced before the High Court of Kerala, pointing to many cases of conversion in inter-religious marriages. The seriousness of the issue was underlined in clear terms, and yet, no concrete action was taken to investigate and to bring to public knowledge the modus operandi of love jihad.
It is unfortunate that again, in 2017, the law enforcement agency finds itself questioning the link between love jihad and terrorism. The Supreme Court had to intervene to force an investigation.
The report submitted in the High Court in 2009 says that close to 2,500 such inter-religious marriages have taken place in Kerala since 2005, although different sources in Kerala have been producing different figures. One body of the government accepts the existence of forced conversion through love jihad even as another rejects outright the concept of jihad in the guise of marriage. The dichotomy points to a deliberate attempt to brush the issue under the carpet.
There are reports indicating the prevalence of love jihad in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and other states. But there has been no attempt to collect data from all the states. For political convenience, the governments have been in avoidance mode. But minority appeasement cannot come at the cost of the internal security of the country.
The conversion of non-Muslims and their eventual participation in terror activities is not just an India phenomenon. It is now a global threat spanning developed and under-developed countries. Fifty-two-year-old Khalid Masood aka Adrian Russell Ajao, a former English teacher from the West Midlands in England, who converted to Islam, was instrumental in a terrorist attack on March 22nd, 2017 in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster in London, the seat of the British Parliament. Hindu-born Siddhartha Dhar-turned-Abu Rumaysah, an ISIS recruit, gained notoriety for allegedly fronting threats to the UK from inside Syria. As per a study by Robin Simcox, in 32 ISIS-related plots in the West between July 2014 and August 2015, out of 58 individuals linked to the cases, 29 per cent were converts. In a similar study by Scott Kleinman and Scott Flower, though only 2 to 3 per cent of Britain’s 2.8 million Muslims converted, they constituted 31 per cent of jihadist terrorism convictions from 2001 to 2010.
There are studies on the radicalisation of non-Muslims and their participation in terror acts, but little is spoken about love jihad globally. India, despite its late acknowledgement of it, has at least started discussing it, thanks to higher courts.
(These are the author’s personal views)