On the 27th of November, we will get to hear Dr. Hadiya, in her own words, in open court. Till now, we have heard her in brief clippings on video, but on the 27th, the Supreme Court will finally hear her, as her father, Ashokan has been told to present her in court.
The case has, so far, treated her as a tainted witness – one incapable of honestly and truly representing herself, one who’s narrative is not to be believed, and someone whose story is always seen as one side of the story, the other side being that of her father, the state, the court, the NIA. The NIA has also recently taken her statement, and that of Shafin Jahan, and the observations of the court from the last hearing make it amply clear that the malicious stories being spread – of love jihad, of a ‘larger pattern’, of indoctrination – are not going to be easily challenged, even if the Supreme Court does hear out Hadiya. The entire weight of the state apparatus has come down on her and on Shafin, in order to prove that they cannot be taken at their words, and like always, her decision to convert, and this union, is a threat to national security itself.
Leigh Gilmore in her book, Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives, presents the history of tainted witnesses, and how, as she puts it, there is a “larger social history in which women find themselves caught up in a system that refuses to believe what they say.” She speaks of cases such as the famous one of Anita Hill in the United States, whose testimony was never believed until much later, while the man she was testifying against, Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the Senate happened, uninterrupted. This pattern is similarly visible in many moments and spaces today – while those giving testimony, bearing witness to their lives, to the wrongs wrought on them, are doubted, exposed, left vulnerable, those who should be held responsible continue their lives freely, unaffected. The taint sticks to the the one testifying – the gaze turns on her, on the veracity of her words, and this gaze never turns back on those it really should be examining. In recent discussions, around “The List”, this is explicitly visible. While the entire pressure of the establishment – many feminists included – came down on Raya Sarkar and the many people testifying, bearing witness, those being accussed were mostly let-off scot free, even given space in “alternative” media organisations to air their views, like Partha Chatterjee, or given awards, like Lawrence Liang, without any consequence.
In Hadiya’s case, I would argue that the taint does not exist merely because she is a “woman” and there is a history of disbelieving women. As Gilmore also argues in the context of the United States, the history of taint is also majorly mediated through questions of race. The testimony of a black woman – Anita Hill was never good enough, never valid enough, never untainted enough. The taint in this case is a product of anti-Muslimness and the direct, Islamophobic nature of the Indian state as well, as well as those of its many organs and bodies. She is being doubted particularly because she made a decision to leave the Hindu religion, and embrace Islam. It is her decision that leaves not just Hinduism itself, and its flagbearers, but also other organs of the Indian state, in the shape of the “rootha hua patriarch”, or the sulky , sullen patriarch, as activist and journalist Dhrubo Jyoti said in a talk in JNU, organised on the anxieties around conversion and the case of Hadiya. The decision she took – of rejecting the majority, the self-confident, self-aggrandizing sphere of the religion that sees itself as the norm and the law in this country – renders everyone shocked, because it is seen as an audacious, even ungrateful act. What could this woman see in Islam, a religion that has been demonised, villified and attacked beyond belief in this country? How dare she? The sullen, patriarchal Hindu religion, and the sullen, patriarchal Indian state, ensconced in this so-called religion, cannot believe its own rejection. It has taken offense, and how.
As Heba Ahmed argues in her recent article, “…the basic premise of Hadiya’s conversion has incited immense secular anxiety. Why should any woman choose to convert to any religion, since all religions encourage patriarchy? Why did Hadiya marry a man who has connections with a ‘fundamentalist’ organisation such as the Popular Front of India? Why did Hadiya have to convert before getting married, isn’t this a loss of autonomy?” Every single decision she has taken has to be unravelled, shown as unfit. She then has to be reduced, belittled, her testimony dismissed – all in very legal terms – she literally is termed incapable of taking her decisions, put under custody under parens patriae, called a “girl” who could not possibly know what is good for her.
As has been pointed out previously as well, the opposition to Hadiya’s conversion and their marriage has not been created or sustained merely by the right-wing, but also by those who have either chosen to stay silent on the case or have actively aided and abetted the state in furthering their persecution, whether it is the LDF government, or the Women’s Commissions, national or at the state level. Many feminists have otherwise spoken about choice and agency, but who, facing the will of a 25 year old Muslim woman to question the established norms of the Hindu household and life-world, have fallen absolutely silent. When she and Shafin are being pushed into a dangerous web of state-backed and NIA-produced rumour mongering of indoctrination and larger patterns, what good is silence? What good is half-hearted conversations around her right to choose, when they are suffixed with a “but…”?
The invoking of the nation and the sustained creation of these tainted witnesses are irrevocably linked. The witnesses cannot be tainted purely in legal terms – every decision Hadiya took, and later Shafin took, were legal, constitutional and within their rights. There is no way to discredit them by finding any legal violation. Instead, the (il)logic of the nation has to be invoked, of national security, of terror, of Syria, of ISIS, of love jihad. These taints have to be attached, very firmly, onto the bodies of Hadiya and Shafin, and the lives they chose to lead, because then there was no question of believing them anyway. When the nation itself is being produced as the victim in this case – its safety, its security, its borders at risk – the testimonies of Hadiya and Shafin, in a country which has always held Muslims as not worthy of belief, as untrustworthy, as deviant, the nation’s apparent vulnerability will be held supreme. As the High Court of Karnataka said in 2011, while dismissing Abdul Nazir Madani’s bail plea, referencing some mysterious “wise…scriptures”, “…for the sake of the interest of the family, individual’s interest will have to be given up, for the sake of the interest of the village, the interest of the family has to be given up, and in the interest of the State, the interest of the village has to be given a go-by…[and] the interest of the state will have to yield to the nation’s interest. However, the interest of the nation can never be given up.”
But the thing is – and this is perhaps the most important thing to hold onto – Hadiya has held steadfast in the face of odds most of us would not even be able to remotely imagine. She has continued to hold onto her faith, her belief, her voice in the face of impossible odds. Each time she has had the briefest of opportunities of making her voice heard beyond the confines of the house is she trapped in, she has succeeded – whether the text message she sent Shafin months ago, or the clippings we hear where she clearly names herself (which, again, is denied repeatedly by those who call her Akhila, or Akhila-Hadiya; even bearing witness to one’s own chosen name threatens this apparently impenetrable, but fragile ‘nation’) – to state her case, to state her testimony, to bear witness to her own life. She has done so repeatedly, and she has been silenced or ignored repeatedly. She has been also made to wait endlessly for this opportunity in court, without concern for her health, her safety, or freedom. In the face of her steadfastness, what remains? Nothing holds up quite so strongly as her resolve. Nothing can.
So when she speaks in court, in the highest court of this land of this land on the 27th of November, all of us would do well to hear her represent herself, not as ‘one side’ of a story, but as her story.