The Hadiyas of Bengal: plight of Hindu-Muslim marriages in the name of protecting Hindu identity. Part I
In the Dokholbati village of Rampurhat block I of West Bengal’s Birbhum district, a number of houses don’t have regular electricity supply. Entrance to the house of Phatik Chandra Mal is pitch dark, so are the winding roads that lead up to it.
The house is a combination of bricks and rooms made out of mud – a courtyard in between – with a flickering dim white light in the drawing room. The walls, painted a lurid blue, have pictures of a number of Hindu gods and goddesses hanging from it. Apart from me, there’s another guest in the house – a beautiful, thin, dark woman in her forties. She has quietly slipped out of home for a while to talk to me at her neighbour’s place and she will disclose a secret to me. And therefore I cannot mention her name here.
Let’s call her Mina. Mina and Panchanan Mal (they have the same surname as the person whose house she is visiting) have a daughter named Laxmi.
She is not yet 18 years old, Mina tells me, but at this young age, she has brought shame to the family. She had eloped with a Muslim boy.
Last year – 2017 – when Laxmi started going to class XI, she didn’t return home after school one day. Eventually, the family gathered that she was in the house of a Muslim boy, whom she had married. They brought her back after a few days of negotiations. “It was not difficult to bring her back,” Phatik Chandra Mal, a local Vishwa Hindu Parishad functionary said. “The police always help to bring back minor girls. So the work is easy for us,” Mal says.
But Mina and her husband knew that they couldn’t force confinement on the girl for long. “If we didn’t marry her off to a Hindu boy immediately, she could have run away again,” Mina said. Laxmi was married off hurriedly to a Hindu boy, “a Brahmin”, she announces proudly. “We are scheduled caste, so we are lucky we got a Brahmin boy.”
Their neighbour helped the family find a suitable boy. “But he has no knowledge of the episode of her elopement. We have kept it a secret,” Mina says. “She is still a minor and with time, she will forget about the Muslim boy completely.”
Phatik Chandra Mal says that they have “rescued” several Hindu girls in this manner. A phenomenon widely known as love jihad, is an allegation against Muslim men that they ‘kidnap’ women from other communities, chiefly Hindus, for conversion to Islam, by feigning love.
“Whenever Hindu parents approach us, we rescue the girls. Police helps if the girls are minor. If they are not, then we have to take to other means,” he said.
Rampurhat, approximately 250 km from Kolkata, is an Assembly constituency in the Birbhum district of south Bengal. The elections have been consistently won by Trinamool Congress for the past several times and by the Forward Bloc before that. However, in recent times, the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have been getting huge support from among people – evident from the Ram Navami rallies – which were said to have drawn 40,000 people this year. An area with high percentage of Muslims, there is a clear attempt by the VHP to appeal to Hindus the “need to come together” to protect their “Hindu identity”.
Debojyoti Das, secretary of VHP Birbhum district said: “The main purpose is to rescue these girls because Muslim men are tagetting Hindu girls to capture their properties. These are clear cases of love jihad.” VHP has a special wing, the dharmaprashar branch entirely devoted to this work. If the girls are minors we can easily rescue them with police help, but we also have to immediately arrange their marriage so they cannot run away to their Muslim husbands again.
For adult Hindu women who have eloped with adult Muslim men, VHP authorities have other, complex modus operandi. “It works. We handle anything between 10 to 15 cases in Rampurhat and the adjoining villages every year,” he said.
Take the case of Arabinda Lek’s daughter, Parul (names changed). Right after she sat for her Higher Secondary examinations, Parul eloped with a Muslim boy from the neighbourhood. Lek lives in the Lawpara village of Gokholmati area of Birbhum’s Rampurhat block II.
“When my daughter eloped and married a Muslim boy, police refused to help because she was an adult,” Lek said. “I was called to the police station. But my daughter said she wouldn’t return with me. I was shocked. My own daughter stood there and told me firmly that she was married to a Muslim man and wouldn’t come back to me again.”
A desperate Lek approached the VHP’s Debojyoti Das. “I advised the girl’s family to trick the couple into believing they had accepted the marriage,” Das said.
It definitely worked. When the Lek family encouraged their daughter and son-in-law to visit them, the family was socially ostricised by other Hindu neighbours. “We were mocked at, not allowed to use the public tube well. A neighbour aimed a piece of brick at my wife from the adjoining terrace,” Arabinda Lek remembers. All this for “accepting” their daughter’s marriage with a Muslim man.
“During one of her visits to our place, I sent her off to Kolkata. And then we didn’t let her return to her Muslim husband again,” Lek said. A Hindu boy was quickly found and Parul was married off.
Parul’s husband is now in class XI and perhaps not yet 21 years of age (says Lek), the legal age of marriage for men in India according to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act.
“I have promised him that I’ll ensure he is established in life. Let him complete his studies first,” Arabinda Lek says. Arabinda Lek owns several cars and agricultural land, which, he feels, was the main target of the Muslim boy with whom his daughter had eloped. “The Muslim boy was after my property,” Lek says. Somehow, he feels the same logic does not apply to the Hindu boy who has now married his daughter.
Interestingly, Parul received an initial instalment of the West Bengal government’s incentive under the Kanyashree , an award winning scheme to prevent child marriages. The initial payment is an annual incentive of Rs 750 to girls in the 13-18 years age group so they continue to study. Once the girl turns 18, a one-time grant of Rs 25,000 is paid “provided that she was engaged in an academic pursuit and was unmarried”. There are 1,21,04,055 sanctioned applications (as on July 18, 2017) of Kanyashree.
Though the condition for Kanyashree payment is that the recipient should not be married, Lek says his daughter recently got the initial payment and the second instalment is due after she completes her class XII examination (she had failed to clear it the first time and could not appear the second time due to her elopement and marriage, and is now waiting to sit for the examination the coming year). One is not sure how that might be possible in a scheme meant to prevent child marriage and to encourage girls’ education.
Superintendent of Birbhum, Kunal Agarwal, did not receive calls. However, a senior police officer said that Childline, a government toll free number often keeps track and receives complaints of minors being forced into marriages. “But if we rescue a minor girl and she goes back to her parents, it is impossible to keep track whether they have been married off. Parents often claim to have sent them to relatives’ homes.” He said even when adult women are forced to come out of marriages and married off elsewhere, “unless the women call us, lodge complaints or someone brings it to our notice, it is not possible to stop these illegal marriages.”
The Leks and the Mals do not regret the unethical and illegal divorce and marriages they are making happen for the sake of “protecting” their “Hindu identity”. For the VHP, it is an organised project that they have been carrying out for several years. In West Bengal, which is now a priority for the right-wing to spread its activities, the number of cases are growing.
I didn’t get to meet either Laxmi or Parul. In fact, I didn’t want to track them down. Neither husband had any clue of the wife’s previous marriage. Attempt to meet or to talk to the women would jeopardise the marriages.
A Supreme Court Bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra defined the limits of the court’s jurisdiction in the Hadiya case in February this year. Hadiya, a 26-year-old woman had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man. The marriage was annulled by the Kerala High Court and her father Asokan K.M. said she was being recruited to be trafficked to work in Syria as “sex slave”.
Justice D.Y. Chandrachud had observed: “Can a court say a marriage is not genuine or whether the relationship is not genuine? Can a court say she did not marry the right person? She came to us and told us that she married of her own accord.”
But the voices of many women have been suppressed in Bengal, and there haven’t been scope to put up a fight to seek justice. Not all of them can be as brave as Hadiya.
[In Part II, read the story of a young man who says Hindu men must come forward to “rescue” girls who are being “kidnapped” by Muslim men. He has come forward to volunteer as a “saviour” and protector.]
Cover photograph: VHP Birbhum district secretary Debojyoti Das