Controversy

By means mostly foul

Print edition : January 09, 2015

Namaz time in Ved Nagar colony in Agra. Photo: Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Tularam Jatav, whose act of approaching the local authorities for his conversion sparked a row. Photo: Divya Trivedi

By their own admission, Sangh Parivar outfits have been engaged in reconversion in the Hindi heartland for two and a half decades. With the BJP’s rise to power at the Centre, it has become more pronounced in the States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

UTTAR PRADESH and Bihar figure prominently in the ghar wapsi plans of the Dharam Jagran Samiti (DJS), the Sangh Parivar affiliate that spearheads the reconversion programme. Leaders of the DJS claimed that over one lakh families had “come back to their home religion” in the past six years in the two States.

Talking to Frontline, DJS leader Harish Chandra Sharma said that this had been happening since the time of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. “The only thing new is that the media have suddenly started giving greater focus to our work. Of course, our activities have become more organised and energetic since the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] under the leadership of Narendra Modiji got a majority at the Centre. Perhaps that is also a reason for the larger focus of the media on us,” he said. DJS leaders in the two Hindi heartland States and activists of other Sangh Parivar outfits, from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal, echo his views.

Indeed, it is the larger media attention and the political and social responses it generated in various parts of the country that forced the DJS and its associates to retreat from the “biggest ever ghar wapsi show in recent times”, which was planned for December 25 in Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh. The proclaimed objective of the DJS was to “bring back home” 4,000 Christians and 1,000 Muslim families.

Rajeshwar Singh, a prominent activist of the DJS, told Frontline that Aligarh was one of the main areas where the idea of ghar wapsi had taken root. “In the district, our organisations have collectively brought into the home religion approximately 40,000 persons, including 2,000 Muslims,” he said. Satprakash Navman, convener of the DJS’ Aligarh unit, said that preparations were complete for the event but top RSS leaders had directed them to cancel it.

However, almost all the DJS activists were clear that their reconversion project would continue apace despite the cancellation of this one event.

Navman said that the majority of those who were supposed to participate in the December 25 event were originally Rajputs who had converted to Islam several decades ago. “They have already reconverted to Hindu religion and our plan was just to formalise this by having an event for them to be welcomed by prominent members of the Rajput community.” Apart from Aligarh, the DJS is active in the districts of Bulandshahr, Mathura, Hathras, Etah, Agra, Badaun, Rae Bareli, Varanasi and Gorakhpur.

The Bihar scenario

In neighbouring Bihar, too, the DJS and other Sangh Parivar outfits have been engaged in reconversion for two and a half decades. DJS leaders say that the functioning of the outfit’s Bihar units has had an impact on the people living in the border districts of North and South Dinajpur in West Bengal. “Initially, we were getting good response from these areas. But now we have a good response from other regions as well, particularly after the spectacular performance of the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections,” he said.

Subedar Singh, who is in charge of DJS projects in Bihar and Jharkhand, said that the emerging social and political climate had facilitated a meeting of the Sant-Mahant Samaj, consisting of 2,200 heads of mutts and temples, organised at Vaishali on December 13-15 to discuss “challenges before the Hindus”. The gathering, in which the Hindutva demagogue and Lok Sabha member Yogi Adityanath gave an open call to aggressively pursue reconversion, apparently formulated “plans to stymie the designs of Christian missionaries and Islamist jehadists” .

DJS leaders and activists across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar claim that the response to their ghar wapsi was voluntary and unforced. This claim is anything but true, going by the ground-level feedback. The most striking case in point is the reconversion event that happened at the Dev Nagar slum in the heart of the tourist town of Agra in Uttar Pradesh in early December. Here, the DJS held a function to announce the “homecoming” of 57 Muslim families. The event was conducted with puja and havans under the leadership of local DJS activists such as Nand Kishore Valmiki.

DJS activists claimed that the 57 families had been converted to Islam forcibly decades ago and that they were coming back on their own. Members of the families quickly denied these claims. The media reports on it sparked a furore in Parliament.

‘Muslims for generations’

The residents of Ved Nagar were in a state of shock barely a week after the controversy erupted. Several of them told Frontline that DJS activists had introduced themselves as social activists trying to improve the living conditions of people in slums. “They promised us ration cards, BPL cards and Aadhaar cards, thus suggesting that we would have better credentials to get government benefits. They also said they would hold a function to distribute these cards. Only when the function started did we realise that it was puja and havan. Many of us walked off immediately. Some who could not make out what was happening stayed back. The next day, they went to town claiming that we all had embraced Hinduism,” said Jehangir, a resident of Ved Nagar.

Ismail, another resident, said he and many others had been Muslims for at least four generations. “Of course, we were in West Bengal, and as ragpickers and kabbaadiwaalas we were moving from place to place,” he said. All the families had reached Agra and Ved Nagar about 12 years ago, he said.

“We had no civic facilities or access to government benefits, and the Sangh Parivar outfits sought to exploit our state of poverty and add numbers to their strange games,” said a woman in the slum.

Reports from Aligarh and West Champaran also suggest that the so-called ghar wapsi is an exercise involving blandishments, allurements, deceit and coercion. And since DJS activists themselves point out that Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the key targets for ghar wapsi, one is bound to hear more such stories from the Hindi heartland.

To Islam and back

Some 170 kilometres from Gwalior along National Highway 7 is the town of Khaniyadhana in Shivpuri, one of the Madhya Pradesh districts that falls under the Backward Regions Grant Fund Programme of the Central government. In September, it shot into prominence with reports of a reconversion, or ghar wapsi, programme conducted by the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) with the connivance of the State administration.

The incident is about a family of 25 members in Bukarra village, 5 km from Khaniyadhana. At the entrance to Bukarra stands a wide tree flanked by the dwellings of “upper–caste” Sharmas and Pals, followed by those of the Adivasis and the Vanshkar and Prajapati castes, and the Harijan basti, in that order, before the village tapers off into fields.

In the last but one house in the Harijan basti lives Tularam Jatav, whose act of approaching the local authorities for his conversion to Islam sparked a row. Had he been allowed to convert, he would have been the first Muslim in the village. “This is India. Anything can happen here,” he says casually when asked about the incident. His only worry now is about how to make ends meet.

In the village of 600 households, there are 25 Dalit families, most of whom till their own land or rear buffaloes for their livelihood. Others are landless labourers. The village has a school which has up to Class 8; one needs to travel to Khaniyadhana to complete school education, and to the nagar panchayat of Pichhore for college. Several upper-caste children have made it to Khaniyadhana and Pichhore, but amongst the Jatavs, the most educated person is Tularam’s cousin Sardar, who has studied up to Class 12.

Tularam himself has studied up to Class 9. His family of 25 members has three buffaloes and 12 bighas of land where they grow wheat to eat and peanuts to sell. At the most, they make Rs.25,000-30,000 per season from the land that is divided between three brothers and their six sons. The buffaloes, the land and the motorcycle in the family are viewed with scorn by the upper castes who take these to be the signs of the Jatav family’s prosperity. They blame Tularam’s relative Maniram of luring him to Islam with the promise of foreign trips.

Maniram, who hails from Chhirwaha village, says he decided to convert after being drawn to the egalitarian principle of Islam when he read the Kalma (Islamic tenet). Restrictions on Dalits with regard to temple entry and other forms of socio-economic discriminations prevail in the district.

On September 2, Tularam and his family members, along with Maniram and his sons Ibrahim and Kasim, appeared before the district authorities to submit affidavits for conversion to Islam. They maintained that nobody had coerced them to convert.

Shivpuri Collector Rajeev Dubey told them he would take a look at the documents and let them know in a week’s time. But as soon as the family came out of the office, scores of Bajrang Dal and VHP activists gheraoed them. Pandemonium followed.

“An FIR [first information report] was lodged at the police station under Sections 4 & 5 (2) of the Freedom of Religion Act, 1968. Some Muslim organisations lured the Jatavs into converting by promising Rs.1-2 lakh,” said Inspector Sunil Srivastav, Khaniyadhana. Members of the Jatav family were arrested, beaten, threatened and sweet-talked into getting back into the Hindu fold. They were promised houses and shops if they went back. They were taken to a temple by hundreds of activists and made to do puja in front of the deity.

RSS activists allegedly threatened Kasim with murder if he did not reconvert to Hinduism. When the police asked Maniram to name persons who read the namaz, he unwittingly named some people he knew but said he used to go to read namaz on his own accord. Subsequently, nine persons were arrested.

The Muslim community did not intervene in the matter. The atmosphere would have quickly deteriorated had Maniram and others not agreed to reconvert. Furthermore, he did not want to be the cause of communal violence and went ahead with the shuddhikaran, or purification. Maniram’s beard was cut at the thana, or the local police station. Having kept a beard even before his conversion to Islam, he said he should be allowed to keep it, but the Bajrang Dal activists shut him up by saying, “You can grow it later, but now, it has to be cut.” This was clearly a media photo-op, with the subsequent day’s newspapers splashing the images of Tularam and Maniram’s shuddhikaran.

Apparently, there was tremendous pressure on the administration from the top to preempt the conversion. The police and the local authorities swung into action against the Jatavs with the connivance of the Hindu outfits, said an observer.

In the recent past, the right wing has been growing in strength in the area and its members have installed huge statues of Hindu deities in the Adivasi areas. “We do not pray to Hanuman and have no need for the statue, but now it is there,” said a member of the Saheriya tribe in Shivpuri.

Meanwhile, the situation in Khaniyadhana has escaped the media’s eyes, while the Jatavs continue to be guarded and uncertain of the future. Maniram’s sons, who are under tremendous pressure to reconvert, are not to be seen in the village.

As far as Maniram’s current religious beliefs are concerned, he said: “ Gurudwara hai juda juda, Mandir Masjid ek. Kaali-dhauri gaay ho, lekin doodh safed. Alag alag rahte hue, phir bhi rahte sang. Kabhi juda hote nahi, indradhanush ke rang. Do din ho ya chaar din, hum sab hai mehmaan, ishwar ka ghar, doston hamara Hindustan.” (Gurudwaras are different, temples and mosques, one. Black or white cow, the milk is always white. While being different, they stay together. They never separate, colours of the rainbow. For two days or four, we are all guests. Home of the Lord, friends, our country India!)

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