* Anti-terror agency probes interfaith marriages in Kerala
* State has strong Middle East connections
* Supreme Court to question a Hindu woman about conversion
* Opposition party sees politics behind probe
* Hardline fringe groups clash
By Rupam Jain and Jose Devasia
NEW DELHI/ KOCHI, India Nov 26 (Reuters) - India’s Supreme Court will begin hearing a case on Monday that prosecutors say shows how Islamic State sympathisers are using “Love Jihad” – marrying Hindu women and converting them to Hinduism – to win recruits and spread their message.
Over the past 28 months, the National Investigation Agency has picked up dozens of interfaith couples in the southern state of Kerala to question them about their marriages.
The women - all Hindus who married Muslim men – were asked “extremely personal” questions during the interrogations, two police officers from the agency said: “Did you sleep with your husband before getting married? Did he suggest you visit Islamic shrines before marriage? Did he blackmail you before you converted to Islam?”
They were looking for cases of “Love Jihad”, a term publicized by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other hardline Hindu groups soon after they helped propel Prime Minister Narendra Modi to power in 2014. It refers to what these groups say is an Islamist campaign to convert Hindu women through seduction and marriage.
Police investigations at the time found no evidence of any organised strategy, and the claim was widely ridiculed. But since then, the NIA began focusing on Kerala - a southern state along the Arabian Sea with strong economic links to the Middle East.
It investigated 89 cases of “Love Jihad” and found nine to be alliances planned by people linked to the Islamic State, two NIA sources said, requesting anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
The NIA plans to present evidence in all nine cases to the Supreme Court. The agency declined to disclose the evidence they have. But in two of the cases the agency was examining money sent from an Islamic school in Iraq to the women’s bank accounts, and in another case a woman and her husband had shared IS videos among people in their Kerala village, the sources said.
Opposition parties say the investigation shows the government is allowing the RSS and others to use the state apparatus to further an agenda of establishing Hindu dominance in India, where 13 percent of the population is Muslim.
M.B Rajesh, a federal lawmaker and member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which rules Kerala, said the NIA and the RSS are trying to prove that marriages between Hindus and Muslims “are forced unions”.
“The NIA’s probe is creating religious fault lines to help Modi’s party win (Kerala’s) state elections, but we will defeat them.”
J. Nandakumar, an RSS leader who oversees the group’s activities in the state, said the NIA probe vindicates the Hindu right’s campaign against religious conversions.
“Their first step is to convert Hindu boys and girls, hypnotise them and prepare them for jihad,” he said.
The RSS, which founded the first iteration of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party six decades ago, believes India is fundamentally a Hindu nation. Since Modi’s election in May 2014, the RSS has expanded its membership and influence across India and either it or its affiliates now run key ministries, such as the home ministry that supervises the NIA and the finance ministry.
Muslims — who account for 172 million of India’s 1.32 billion citizens - have been under increasing pressure from the Hindu right. Muslims have been lynched for killing cows - considered sacred in Hinduism - and some of their slaughter houses forced to shut down.
Neither Modi’s office nor the NIA would comment because the issue is before India’s Supreme Court.
One of the Muslim men, whose marriage to a Hindu woman was annulled by Kerala’s High Court, has appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
The NIA has accused the man, Shefin Jahan, in court of trying to recruit people for the Islamic State, a charge he denies.
The 24-year-old woman, who converted to Islam before marrying him and changed her name from Akhila to Hadiya, was placed in her father’s custody by the high court after he said he feared for her well-being. There is no criminal case against her.
India’s chief justice has summoned Hadiya to New Delhi to testify on Monday on whether she was converted forcefully. The lower court had rejected her husband’s request to have her testify.
“This is for the first time in the history of India the top court will be asking a woman the validity of her marriage and her religious conversion,” said Kapil Sibal, a lawyer and a leader of the opposition Congress party. Sibal is representing Jahan.
Jahan, 26, told Reuters he met Hadiya through a matrimonial website for Muslims while he was working in a pharmaceutical factory in Oman. He said he wants to live with his wife, with whom he stayed for only 48 hours before her father complained to the police.
“Our simple love story has turned into an ugly religious and legal battle,” Jahan said.
The NIA’s probe started in 2015 after the government identified Kerala, which sends tens of thousands of workers to the Middle East, as a potential hotbed of Islamic State recruitment. Nearly half of Kerala’s 33 million people practice Islam and Christianity. Local police and the NIA said at least 100 people from Kerala have joined the IS in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The NIA’s nine “Love Jihad” cases were based on complaints lodged by the parents of the Hindu girls and all were found to have links with IS, the NIA police sources said. The agency dropped the investigations into the other 80 cases because no links to militants were found, the sources said.
Across India, over 270 men and 20 women have been arrested for working directly or indirectly with the IS, according to data at the federal Home Ministry. But Kerala was the only state where the NIA found a direct link between cases of “Love Jihad” and the IS, the NIA sources said.
The agency says it has uncovered attempts by IS sympathizers to possibly send the women in “Love Jihad” marriages off to marry or stay with fighters from the militant group, the NIA sources said.
Two couples, who were questioned by the NIA last year, told Reuters police searched their homes.
“I was shocked when they said maybe my husband was a jihadi, and he could be planning to send me to Syria,” said one woman who married a Muslim information technology professional in 2015.
Police questioned her for six hours, she said, and before leaving, took pictures of her wedding album. (Editing by Paritosh Bansal and Bill Tarrant)