When Hadiya Jahan went to the Supreme Court on November 27 to testify in the long-standing case of her alleged forced conversion to Islam, the Indian media waited with bated breath. Her testimony could make or break her case. And for those inclined to be optimistic, it was likely to bridge gaps in the national narrative about the case, a narrative built with great help from a reckless media.
When Hadiya’s parents filed a case alleging that she was converted to Islam by coercion in January 2016, it didn’t take long for the Indian media to toss about the term “love jihad”.
But the past few months have seen a particular brand of media ruckus surrounding her story. Let’s call it the “Ignore Hadiya and Talk Over Her” syndrome. The coverage about Hadiya before her testimony focused on everything but her autonomy. But what was even more bizarre is how the national conversation never focused on the wishes of the 25-year-old woman.
A woman who, let us not forget, until yesterday has been in the “custody” of her parents. For those who asked how the concept of custody could apply to an adult woman, there were no answers. Instead, the national debate went on and on about her supposed victimisation to “love jihad”. This conversation reached a fever pitch as her court dates approached.
An article in The Times of India on the morning of her court appearance said Hadiya’s “mental sanity” would be under scrutiny during her testimony. This, because her father, Asokan, believes Hadiya is of “unsound mind” and psychologically unfit to make decisions for herself.
A Times Now segment on August 30 opened on Hadiya with the headline “SHOCKING: Hindu girls are hunted, exploited in Kerala”. The segment carried a story based on a report by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on alleged forceful conversions of Hindu women in Kerala. But it went on to claim that Hadiya was a possible victim of this forceful conversion racket.
The Telegraph had carried an article in which an NIA official had anonymously said there was not enough evidence against “love jihad”.
But what was possibly the most ridiculous of the lot was a segment carried by news channel NewsX on November 26. The news bulletin flashed “Hadiya Case a Wound of Kerala”. It argued that conversations about Hadiya had brought possible disrepute to a secular state. Not far removed from khandaan ki izzat. Much more log kya kahenge than Hadiya kya kahegi.
Amid all this noise, can Arnab Goswami be left behind? Republic TV carried a segment on October 30 about Hadiya titled “Love Jihad Fight”. What the nation wanted to know that night was not whether Hadiya was a victim of jingoism and patriarchy. The debate, of course, centred on whether “love jihad” exists.
Goswami didn’t ask the question whether “love jihad” exists but focused more on a game of circular logic that it does exist. Because? Because Hadiya is proof it exists. A particularly ironic portion was when Goswami said: “This is about national interests and the interests of women in this country.”
Does he think that women are simply gullible fools who are mass coerced into conversion? You may remark that it’s odd how “national interest” and the “interest of women” are mutually exclusive in Goswami’s head. But it isn’t so far from the truth, is it?
After Hadiya testified in an open court on Monday, we’d hoped the coverage would take a more sensible stand. She would be speaking her mind at last and the opportunity to cover her story from her perspective opened up to anyone so inclined. Outrageously, she was given only 30 minutes in the courtroom to speak about her ordeal and state her wishes. She expressed that she wanted the freedom to practice her faith, continue her education and go back to her husband.
Newslaundry writes revealingly about the proceedings in court: “Arguments back and forth touched upon the Stockholm syndrome, where an adult of sound mind could take to her captor, of ‘de-programming’ an indoctrinated individual and of the court’s limitations in probing individual autonomy – all along Hadiya was in the courtroom waiting to be heard. It took senior counsel Indira Jaising to raise the question of a woman’s agency. ‘Had she been a man, this kind of treatment would not have been meted out to her,’ she said. The Bench dismissed her line of argument – ‘how is this about gender justice?’ asked Chief Justice Misra.”
Then came the twist in the story no one saw coming. The SC ordered that Hadiya continue her medical education at Sivaraj Homoeopathic Medical College in Salem, Tamil Nadu. It also suggested that the dean of the college oversee her education and approach the court for any queries.
But guess how most of the media chose to cover this? Same old same old, of course. All media reports about the court’s order suggested that her “custody” has been handed over to the dean, even though the SC order had no mention of her custody in its reading.
The Times of India report the next day refrained from commenting on how an adult woman was still not allowed to make her own choices and that her choices were made for her by the court. The report quoted Hadiya’s testimony in court, but that’s not what it detailed.
It instead focused on a report talking about how Hadiya would be protected during her time in Tamil Nadu and the provisions handed to her by the court for safe passage. As a saving grace, the report did note that the court dropped the idea of appointing her college’s dean as her legal guardian as she was legally an adult.
During the court proceedings, Republic TV did a segment on how the NIA has proof that Hadiya’s husband is a possible ISIS recruiter.
ABP News bravely headed into spookier territory. Its segment on Hadiya on November 27 opened with “love jihad ka reality test”. It should ideally have been called “love jihad ka reality show”, considering the segment focused on the now-familiar circular logic of how forced conversations happen and that Hadiya’s case is the litmus test to identify them.
NDTV seemed to be the only one that argued that Hadiya’s marriage should have been her business alone. It said her story was not a “Victory of Choice”, as it is widely being reported in the media. This was in reference to the misreported information about her “custody” being passed on to the Salem college dean. She argued that it was not a victory when she’s still subjected to judicial custody. Needless to say, the argument is invalid since there’s no mention of judicial custody in the SC’s order.
One thing is clear. The Indian national media is trying to make Hadiya appear as a victim of religious coercion. A victim she has been, not of “love jihad” but of patriarchal media scrutiny.
In all the hoopla to spark a national debate, the Indian media has forgotten an important element to the conversation – Hadiya’s voice. Celebrations in the media about Hadiya finally being “free” sound hollow when the nature of her freedom goes unquestioned.
There can be no #FreeHadiya as long as our political and legal institutions don’t recognise her right to follow her wishes with her own actions. There can be no #FreeHadiya until news outlets acknowledge that she speaks her own mind.
Because even after she stood up in the toughest court of this country and spoke her mind for 30 minutes, the majority of the national media chose to not listen to her.
Shruti Sunderraman writes for The Ladies Finger (TLF), a leading online women’s magazine. Visit the website here.