India's highest court has moved to strike down a ruling from a lower court that prevented a Hindu woman who had converted to Islam from living with her Muslim husband, in a landmark decision that upholds the right of inter-religious marriage.
The case had gained notoriety in India owing to allegations from the woman's family that she had been brainwashed by her husband as part of a broader Muslim plot, dubbed by right-wing Hindu nationalists as "love jihad."
Throughout the lengthy two-year court battle, 26-year-old Hadiya, who goes by one name only, consistently maintained that she acted on her own free will, despite claims from her father, Asokan K.M, that she was forced to convert to Islam by her husband.
"This was completely blown out of proportion," said Haris Beeran, the lawyer for the woman at the center of the case. "There was no element of 'love jihad' in this."
The Supreme Court's ruling, which was announced Monday, brings to an end her family's persistent attempts to nullify the marriage, with the three-judge panel stating that "the court has no right to annul marriage between consenting adults."
Referring directly to Hadiya's battle with her parents, which began in the southern state of Kerala, the judges ruled that the wishes of her family "cannot be allowed to curtail her fundamental rights," adding that the freedom to choose a spouse and convert to another religion was both a constitutional and a human right.
"Intimacies of marriage, including the choices which individuals make on whether or not to marry and on whom to marry, lie outside the control of the state. Courts as upholders of constitutional freedoms must safeguard these freedoms," said the ruling.
Radical nationalism on the rise
Hinduism is India's dominant religion, according to census data, with 828 million followers or 80.5% of the country's 1.3 billion population. Muslims make up 13% and Christians 2.3%.
Although interfaith marriages have long faced opposition within India, the phenomenon of "love jihad" has only recently gained popular currency, with advocates alleging that Muslim men are engaged in a politically motivated conspiracy to take over the country by converting Hindu women to Islam.
The popularizing of the term's usage, which dates back as far as the 1920s, has been linked to a broader rise in right-wing Hindu nationalism in the wake of the 2014 general election, which saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party sweep to power with an overwhelming majority.
According to a study sponsored by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released last year, hate crimes against Muslims, Dalits, and other marginalized groups have escalated since the election, with the report noting that India's "pluralistic tradition faces serious challenges in a number of its states."
The latest court ruling is unlikely to end debate around the issue of "love jihad," however. Speaking to CNN in the wake of the verdict Wednesday, Rakesh Sinha, honorary director of the India Policy Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the right-wing Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said that although the Supreme Court had overturned the previous judgment, "it doesn't mean that 'love jihad' is an imaginary thing."
"There are certain organizations which are radicalizing youth and using love and conspiratorial marriage as a tool to attract Hindu girls," Sinha added. "Their objective is to create disharmony and imbalance in society."
Lengthy court battle
Hadiya, who was born as Akhila Asokan, was raised by traditional Hindu parents in a small town in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
She left home for college some time prior to 2016, enrolling in a homeopathy school in a town in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. It was during this period, that according to previous court records, she converted to Islam, and changed her name to Hadiya.
Hadiya claimed it was only after her conversion that she decided to marry, finding her husband, Shafin Jahan, through a matrimonial website, those same court records show.
The two were married in December 2016. By then, Hadiya was already entangled in a court case with her father, who had pursued legal action in a bid to force his daughter to return home.
According to court documents, Hadiya's father alleged that his daughter told him "she had a plan to go to Syria for sheep rearing," and he was worried that she had been influenced by Islamic extremists.
Allegations of Jahan's connections to radical Islam have dogged the case from the outset.
The Supreme Court's ruling was made amid an ongoing investigation by India's National Investigation Agency (NIA), into Jahan's alleged links to radical Islamist groups.
The court's ruling on Monday allows the NIA investigation to continue with the caveat that it not touch on the couple's marriage. The Supreme Court initially ordered the NIA, a government counter terrorism agency, to start investigating in August 2017.
Last May, in ruling to annul Hadiya's marriage and place her in the permanent custody of her father, the Kerala high court said that "a girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited."
For about seven months, she remained at her parent's home, unable to finish her studies or to see her husband. In the meanwhile, her husband brought the case to the Supreme Court to appeal the decision.
The Supreme Court, in November 2017, issued a temporary order to allow Hadiya to resume her studies and freed her from her confinement in her parent's house.
As a result of the Supreme Court's ruling, Hadiya has been reunited with her husband and is continuing her studies in college, said Beeran, her lawyer.