'I converted voluntarily': A temple priest’s widow debunks Assam BJP leaders’ hate campaign

A victim’s testimony nails the lies spread by the BJP and its supporters about forcible conversion.

Published : Oct 06, 2021 06:00 IST

On September 23, the Assam Police shot dead two people, including a 12-year-old boy, in Dhalpur (Dholpur) village in Assam’s Darrang district. A desperate regime is now making efforts to deflect attention from the sordid state of affairs that began with the eviction of as many as 800 families from their homes amidst a raging COVID-19 pandemic and heavy monsoon rains in a flood-prone riverine region.

An attempt is now being made to add a distinct communal hue to the entire exercise, perhaps also because it is election season in Assam: by-elections are scheduled for October 30 in Gossaigaon, Tamulpur, Mariani, Thowra and Bhabanipur Assembly constituencies. This means it is a ripe opportunity for polarisation and division and seeking votes on the basis of hyped-up hate instead of concrete issues. The top brass of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam is busy spreading the rumour that Muslims “took away” Parbati Das, the widow of Karna Das, the priest of the Siva temple in Dhalpur, and their son. They have alleged that Parbati Das was forced to marry a Muslim and forcibly converted to Islam along with her son.

But when we (members of the non-governmental organisation Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP)) spoke to Parbati Das, she shot down the communal rumours and told us her story.

Parbati Das’ story

“I was married to the priest of this Dhalpur temple when I was around 12 or 13 years old. We both used to offer prayers there,” she said. Her family and two other Hindu families used to live in peace with their predominantly Muslim neighbours. Later, the other two Hindu families moved away to Kalang in Morigaon district. Meanwhile, many Assamese Hindus who lived across the river came and offered prayers at this temple. Parbati and Karna Das had two sons, the elder of whom now works as a daily wage labourer in Guwahati.

“My husband died about 20 years ago, but I continued to offer prayers,” Parbati Das said. But after his death, the young Parbati Das fell on difficult times. “I ended up working as a help in the homes of Assamese families and even carrying bricks at construction sites to make ends meet,” she said. Sometimes, she also worked as a help in the homes of Muslim families. This appeared to have rubbed some communal-minded people the wrong way, and they started harassing her. “Even the new priest who came after my husband died harassed me because I used to work in the homes of Miya Muslims to feed my children…; it was torture,” she said.

“Around that time, the condition of the house I used to live in deteriorated so much that it became unliveable. I asked the temple committee for help, but they claimed that I had no land. But I knew we had land. So they directed me to the Circle Office,” said Parbati Das, who had to run from pillar to post to collect evidence of land ownership. “I managed to get copies of revenue receipts”, she said, but the harassment continued. She ended up living in a makeshift tent. “I built it using banana leaves and a saree,” she said, recalling her trauma. “When nobody helped me and I could not live there any more, I decided to get married to a local man so that my children and I would have shelter during the rainy season,” she said. Parbati Das married a Bengali-speaking Muslim, their shared language playing a part in her choice. Also read: Discord in Assam after Sipajhar eviction drive

As far as religious conversion goes, she clarified: “As one person cannot have two religions, I accepted my husband’s religion voluntarily.” She reiterated: “Nobody forced me to change my religion.” What is noteworthy is that her name still appears as Parbati Das in her documents. The CJP is in possession of her voter ID card, caste certificate and revenue receipt of the land for which her family had paid taxes.

Parbati Das’ sons from her first marriage have both retained their Hindu names and religion. Her son from her second marriage practises his Muslim father’s faith.

But the truth has not stopped the BJP from spreading misinformation that has the potential to spark a communal conflagration. At the forefront of this communal rumour campaign are none other than Dilip Saikia, the BJP Member of Parliament from Mangaldoi, which is the district headquarters of Darrang, the site of the violence, and Padma Hazarika, the BJP MLA from Sootea.

Recently, Atanu Bhuyan, editor of DY 365, a popular local news channel, tweeted that Saikia had told his channel that a Siva temple priest’s wife had been forced to convert to Islam in Dhalpur. His tweet: “The indigenous population in Dholpur has come under threat from encroachers to such extent that some Muslim people took away Dholpur Shiva temple priest’s wife and child and forcibly converted them @DilipSaikia4Bjp—atanu bhuyan (@atanubhuyan) September 24, 2021”

The issue was also amplified by @VoiceOfAxom, an influential Twitter handle with over 36,000 followers. It claimed that the temple was 5,000 years old and that its patrons included both Ahom and Nepali kings. But when it came to the temple’s modern-day management, it said that Hindu dairy farmers of Gorukhuti village contributed to its upkeep. But, in a rather viciously communal twist, it goes on to peddle the same narrative of forced conversion of the temple priest’s wife.

Its tweet: “After the demise of the Pujari Kartik Das in 2011, his wife was forced to marry a Muslim man. She and the three children of the late Pujari Kartik Das were converted to Muslim. Such is the threat to indigenous people in Dholpur. 10/n—Voice of Assam (@VoiceOfAxom) September 25, 2021”

But that is not all. In an interview with Anupam Chakraborty, editor of NKTV in Assam, Padma Hazarika, another BJP heavyweight, also promoted the same narrative saying: “Parbati Das, the wife of the temple priest and her son Ganesh Das were taken away by a ‘particular’ community. Now, that Parbati and her son are in a Muslim house nearby the temple.” He alleged that the two had been forcibly converted. Also read: Assam's anxiety

But, two things are clear from Parbati Das’ interview to us:

Nobody “took Parvati and her son away” from the priest; There was no “forced conversion”.

Now the Siva temple that is at the heart of this controversy has two priests, one of whom joined just earlier this year. But despite being formerly married to a priest of the same temple, it was Parbati Das who was thrown out of her house with her new family during the eviction. “This is the second time I was thrown out of my house. I am homeless now and don’t know what to do,” she said.

The BJP’s purpose behind spreading this false story appears to be to create a communal divide in a State that has so far been proud of its plural, secular and multi-ethnic culture.

Nanda Ghosh is with Citizens for Justice and Peace.

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