Kerala interfaith couples harassed by right wing vigilantes using marriage notices

Kerala interfaith couples harassed by right wing vigilantes using marriage notices

In a clear breach of privacy, the marriage applications of hundreds of interfaith couples in Kerala, specifically where the bride is Hindu and the groom is Muslim, have been used to bully them.

Aswathy* and Rahman* got married on July 15 under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, in Kerala. They were in the thick of starting their lives together, when Aswathy’s friend called to inform her about a disturbing message he received on a WhatsApp group.

The forwarded message had 13 images. These images were the Notices of Intended Marriage of Aswathy, Rahman and 12 other interfaith couples, who got married or whose marriages were yet to be registered under the Special Marriage Act. Aswathy realised that it was the same notice that the couple had signed at a Registrar’s office in Kerala, and which, as a procedure, was put up on the notice boards of the registration offices in their respective native places, for 30 days starting June 9. These notices, which solemnise marriages per section 5 of the Special Marriage Act, contain the name, address, age, occupation, photos and signatures of the bride and groom — essentially, the personal details of two private citizens.

All the images had one factor in common: the bride is Hindu and the groom is Muslim, and thereby, their relationship is branded as ‘love jihad’.

Aswathy and Rahman were shocked as the WhatsApp forward also contained a message: “These are love jihadis. We are the next scapegoats of these people. If you know these people, you should help them.”

Many couples initially suspected that the staff from registrar offices, who may be biased against certain religious communities, might have leaked the notices to certain groups. But one groom pointed out that these scanned documents are available on a public domain, on the website of the Kerala government’s Registration Department, and anyone can download them.

This calls for urgent attention on two pertinent issues: the constitutionality of making personal information available online; and the scourge of stoking communal hatred using the reprehensible tag, 'love jihad.'

Vile messages on social media

Apart from the WhatsApp group, Aswathy-Rahman’s marriage notice was posted on Facebook, along with 11 other notices. With its spiteful posts, the Facebook page, named ‘Kavipada’ (saffron army), is evidently dedicated to targeting the Muslim community. Their recent post on marriage notices roughly read: “Sacrificial lamb this month (July) ready to be sacrificed in the name of love jihad, after deceiving their parents. Save them if you can.”

A few months ago, a Facebook user by the name Ranjith Kaattumundakkal attached 120 marriage applications in one post, announcing that these are cases of ‘love jihad’ that took place in September, October and November 2019.

“A man named Jayakrishnan Menon on Facebook had uploaded close to 100 marriage applications of interfaith couples on his feed and tagged it as 'Love Jihad back in Kerala'. Soon, scores of others (like Ranjith) started sharing those pictures with hateful comments and statuses about how women like me are the Hindus who are ruining their religion, falling for jihadis, how we will eventually become terrorists,” says Athira, who got married to Shameem under the Special Marriage Act in December 2019.

Their marriage notice, too, was posted on social media a few days after it was put on the notice board. “Not for a moment did these people think about our feelings, security, choices, our pictures and personal details, our privacy… Nothing mattered to them,” says Athira.

When many affected couples flagged these accounts and reported the posts for harassment and bullying, the same people started WhatsApp groups, asking social media users to join the group.

Incidentally, using marriage notices to bully couples has been a tactic used by right wing groups and individuals for the last few years.

A tweet from 2018

In a 2019 Facebook post, the user writes: "Somebody please inform the girl’s parents"

“Our notice seems to be only the latest,” says Aswathy. “The message that came with images also said that ‘these two couples (Aswathy-Rahman and another couple) are the latest examples (of ‘love jihad’) this month.’ So I am guessing these groups are collecting such notices every month.”

Violation of right to privacy

As per the Special Marriage Act, the notice of intended marriage is put up on the notice boards of the registration offices in their respective hometowns or place of residence, for one month. Within the period of 30 days, any person can express objection to the union of the couple. For example, a third person can object because the groom or bride is already married. After one month, the marriage is formalised by the marriage officer.

It takes only a few clicks on the Kerala Registration website’s page to find couples who have registered their marriages under the Special Marriage Act across Kerala. The website currently shows documents of special marriages dating from April 2020. These notices are automatically removed once the marriage is solemnised, or they expire if the marriage is not solemnised within three months, as the law states.

An official from the Registration Department tells TNM that apart from notice boards, they also started uploading these notices on the website in early 2019 when there were minor amendments in the Act (although unrelated to the online system). “The Act does not specify that these notices should be put online, although it says, ‘public at large’,” he says.

However, the official adds that a few months ago, a loophole in the existing system was brought to their attention. “When the notices were published, it showed full details, which technically included demographic data, of the two individuals. Many groups had exploited this lacuna, especially to target interfaith couples. We plugged this flaw immediately. We are putting only notices signed by the two parties, which is within the framework of the law,” the official said.

Though the official claims it is within the legal framework to put these documents online, the harassment caused due to it seems to have gone unaddressed.

Moreover, any personal data published without explicit consent is a violation, points out Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher working on data, governance and the internet. “Every department wants to go digital without understanding the consequences of implementing these measures, especially in the absence of safeguards of privacy legislation. We need rules and laws in place before such measures are implemented.”

On August 24, 2017, the Supreme Court identified an individual’s right to privacy as a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution. This also means protecting a person’s personal information from public scrutiny.

A retired employee of the Department of Registration tells TNM that there were certain provisions under the Special Marriage Act that allow an individual to approach a registration office and collect data on interfaith marriages. There is a fee for searching such data on the site, which was earlier accessible only to the registration office staff.

“There was misuse even then,” he says. “Hindu and Muslim groups would approach us, asking for religion-based marriage data. While the Hindu groups wanted the data to prove the practice of ‘love jihad’, Muslim groups sought data to counter this. We used to turn them away because the religion of the couples is never sought under this Act and hence we never classified data accordingly. These groups, nevertheless, used to persistently go to each district and attempt to collect data. Some officers relented,” says the retired staffer, adding that even the police sought the data for their reports.

Anivar Aravind, a Bengaluru-based software engineer who runs a non-profit initiative that deals with people's rights and software freedom using technology, policy and law, concurs.

“The listings on the website have much more possibility for misuse than the listing in an office notice board. This is a data governance failure while building systems handling citizen data, and it needs a fix,” he says.

“Personal data and its governance need significant changes for current times, while migrating to digital from paper. Its misuse possibilities are rampant as we can see in this case, and create a greater level of harm,” says Anivar, who has also played a leadership role in a free software collective, Swathanthra Malayalam Computing (SMC).

Of course, one can argue that the marriage notice under the Special Marriage Act is a public document, and is required to be published on notice boards for people to raise objections and to duly solemnise the marriage.

However, the Act and the rules only provide for the notice to be exhibited in a conspicuous place in the office of the marriage officer; it cannot be extended to the internet, points out advocate Prasanth Sugathan, who is also the legal director of Software Freedom Law Centre, which works towards protecting freedom in the digital space.

“Publishing the photographs along with the address of the prospective bride and groom on the website is definitely problematic. Any individual in any part of the world can view and access these details. The fact that these notices are used by right-wing organisations to further their agenda should be an eye-opener to the government to stop this practice,” he says.

In this case, experts point out that the affected parties can approach the courts of law and press for damages against the sub-registrar and the department concerned.

Meanwhile, the Registration Department tells TNM that they are considering doing away with the existing system by invoking certain laws, such as the IT Act, in the wake of misuse of public data.

A coordinated effort to harass interfaith couples

Notwithstanding that these notices are on the government platform or notice boards, these could not have surfaced on social media platforms without the coordinated effort by certain religious fanatics, who pulled up marriage applications of Hindu brides-Muslim grooms across Kerala.

On poring over some of the comments of Facebook, Athira realised that some even made plans to visit their houses — because the notices lay bare the addresses — to “educate” their parents about how Hindu girls are allegedly converted to Islam and recruited for ISIS activities.

“We are adults. I don’t want anybody to save me from anything, or create any problems for my parents. They are spreading hate speech. It is devastating. We are newly married but this has been on the back of our minds,” says Aswathy.

Athira says that her mother even received a WhatsApp message from her neighbour. “It has a PDF document of all the 150 applications and a clarion call to stop ‘love jihad’. This was forwarded to her by our neighbour who is a teacher, who, in turn, got it from a student. Fortunately, my mother didn't panic but instead asked me to file a police complaint,” she says.

It is important to note that no term called ‘love jihad’ is defined in current Indian laws. During the Parliamentary session in the Lok Sabha in February 2020, Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy pointed this out and had even acknowledged that no case of ‘love jihad’ has been reported by any of the central agencies.

“Article 25 of the Constitution provides the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health. Various courts have upheld this view, including the Kerala High Court,” he said in his reply at the session.

Despite this, there seems to be no end to the torture meted out to interfaith couples, with this noxious trend serving as the latest example. 

Basheer’s* marriage is yet to be solemnised. In early July, his relatives and friends, including those from Canada, alerted him when his marriage notice started doing the rounds of social media. At first, he ignored it. When the post started going viral, he informed the cybercrime department, but received no help.

Last week, his fiancée’s mother confronted their neighbour when the latter left an offensive comment against the post. This led to an altercation when another neighbour stepped in and allegedly threatened to beat up Basheer if he ever came to the neighbourhood.

“My fiancée is anxious that this could flare up communal tension. I cannot even meet her at this point because of this threat,” he says.

Both Athira-Shameem and Aswathy-Rahman are planning to file complaints with the police and pursue the matter legally. Basheer hopes to file a police complaint once he allays the fears of his fiancée and their families.

But all through this, these couples reiterate and demand one thing: “This has to end”.

(*names changed to protect identity)

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