In a sleepy neighbourhood in TV Puram in Vaikkom in Kottayam district, one particular house stands out from the rest. Unlike many other houses where the main gate is left open for most part of the day, this gate seldom opens. Two surveillance cameras are mounted on top of the compound wall facing the main gate and the house is quiet under the watchful eyes of several policemen, day in and day out.
Ask the people in Vaikkom about Akhila or Hadiya, many would look at you blankly. But tell them you are looking for the Muslim convert who grabbed international media attention, they would lead you straight to this house.
In the one-storey house resides Hadiya (Akhila), a 25-year-old woman whose conversion to Islam was questioned by the Kerala High Court, which also annulled her marriage to a Muslim man. Although the court has given her custody to her parents Ashokan and Ponnamma, and allowed police protection for the family, Hadiya is practically under house arrest. Her father denies that he has put his daughter under house arrest, but refuses to let her have any contact with the outside world.
Pleas by TNM to meet Hadiya were turned down too.
SC wants to hear Hadiya
After six months of having lived in the house without access to the outside world, Hadiya will step out in the last week of November to appear in the Supreme Court.
Since May this year (when her custody was given to her father), the outside world saw Hadiya only twice. At both times, she appeared in videos shot by activist Rahul Easwar. The first video saw her questioning her mother about why she was being forced to live such a life, and the second time saying that her angry father has been treating her badly and that she fears for her life.
But Ashokan insists that he has restricted neither Hadiyaâ€™s right to choose Islam nor her free movement.
â€śShe is free to practice any religion of her choice. There is no harassment happening here, we are not harming her in any sense. I will produce her in court on November 27 for the court to hear all sides. I will welcome whatever the court decides,â€ť Ashokan told TNM.
This however is not entirely true as it is Asokan who approached court twice against his daughter's conversion to Islam. Despite claiming that he was not restricting her from speaking to anyone, multiple requests to meet Hadiya have been turned down by Asokan himself.
Hadiyaâ€™s aunt Girija, who is close to the family, says that the media has painted an unrealistic picture of how her family is treating Hadiya.
â€śShe is free to step out of her house, with police protection. If she wants to go to Vaikkom or somewhere else, she can totally do so. Nobody will stop her. She does occasionally step out of the house into the compound, but does not wish to go outside. Maybe itâ€™s all the media attention,â€ť Girija asserts.
She still refers to Hadiya as Akhi, short for Akhila, the name she has been calling her niece since childhood.
â€śEarlier, Akhi used to come to our house, help me with our jasmine farming. But now even when I ask her to help, she says she does not have the mind to,â€ť Girija said.
But the picture that has been painted of Hadiya, in both her short appearances in the videos shot by Rahul, is contradictory. The family alleges that it was Rahulâ€™s manipulation that resulted in such videos. They are, however, elusive when asked about Hadiya's own words accusing her family of harassment.
A quiet, 'harmless' girl
As a child, Hadiya had been a quiet girl, her neighbours say. A Mathematics teacher at the Government Higher Secondary School in TV Puram, where Hadiya studied till 10th standard, agrees.
â€śDespite living quite close to the school, she was one of the students who never wanted to keep in touch with the school,â€ť the teacher said.
According to neighbours, Ashokanâ€™s was a normal family, with ordinary everyday problems that all families face.
Since Hadiya was away in Salem doing her course, neighbours never saw her frequently enough to notice any visible changes that she had embraced another faith.
Even when news about a Hindu woman from Vaikkom being taken to court by her parents for converting to Islam was reported, the neighbourhood had no idea that it was Hadiya.
â€śIt was only when the HC annulled the marriage that we knew it was Ashokanâ€™s family. We all feel for the parents, who can bear all this pain?â€ť said a neighbour who requested anonymity.
PV Manoharan, CPI local committee member and the family's neighbour, refuted allegations that Hadiya was being harassed.
â€śThe parents are naturally worried for their daughter and are trying to prevent any untoward incident if she is given access to the public. That cannot be called a house arrest,â€ť Manoharan insists.
â€śAshokan now feels that he is losing the case, with the SC asking to produce Hadiya in person. Itâ€™s not a secret what she will tell the court. She will only say that she wants to go with that fellow,â€ť Manoharan said.
Sabu, who lives in the neighbourhood and runs a store near Hadiya's house, reiterates the same.
â€śAsokan probably knows well what she would say in court and he knows that it is not going to be favourable for him. That is why he is not letting anyone speak to her,â€ť Sabu said.
November 27 not the last hearing
In the case pertaining to the special leave petition filed by Hadiyaâ€™s husband Shafin Jahan in the SC against the Kerala HC order, the next hearing is on November 27, in which Hadiya will speak her mind.
Asking Hadiya to be produced, the SC bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra had said last week that it will also hear her father Ashokan and the National Investigation Agency (NIA) that is alleging Hadiya was â€śpsychologically kidnapped.â€ť