Sunday Anchor

Forced into ‘homecoming’

A little over 200 kilometres from New Delhi, where Parliament was frequently disrupted over the controversy around conversions, is a small cluster of 60 homes adjoining Agra’s Ved Nagar Colony. Till recently, the inhabitants of this shanty town went on with their lives in abject poverty, struggling to make ends meet. They offered prayers but infrequently. The children were not sent to school. Instead, they were pairs of extra hands assisting the adults sift through garbage heaps for bits of plastic and polythene bags. The scrap was brought to the area, bundled up and sold to recyclers. Sometimes, the children learnt to read and write in the afternoon when a couple in the locality would come over and teach them. It was an informal arrangement.

In short, they were so busy fighting poverty that the elaborate rituals of faith or education were luxuries they could not afford. They were Bengali-speaking, Muslim immigrants on no-one’s radar. That was until December 8, 2014. Not anymore.

In the afternoon that day, Agra-based activists of the Dharm Jagran Samiti and the Bajrang Dal showed up at the colony and performed a ceremony that lasted a few hours, symbolising their re-conversion into the Hindu fold.

“This place is so far away from the city. We did not even know they existed. It was only after we learnt from the newspapers that our people needed protection that we got involved,” Mohammed Shamsher Khan Burkati, the member of the local Islamic seminary Tanzeem Ulemma-i-Ahle-Sunnat, Agra, said.

From December 10, Burkati or one of his colleagues has been coming to the locality every morning to teach the children to read the Koran. They were deputed by the Tanzeem after newspapers carried reports saying the Muslim inhabitants of the slum cluster converted to Hinduism on December 8. Since then, there has been a steady stream of visitors. Armed policemen have been deployed for their protection. Senior officials of the district administration visited and so have news television crews and other journalists. The Tanzeem sent new prayer mats and another Muslim organisation in Mumbai sent dry rations. “Local Samajwadi Party leaders came and left us bags of rice and dal,” said Munira Begum, who was among those who were subjected to the December 8 ritual. The fateful day has made them more aware of their religious identity than ever before. They now offer Namaz prayers every day, perhaps, to remind themselves and others that they are still Muslim.

“Nand Kishore Balmiki got in touch with me in the last week of November. He lived close by. He said the Modi government wanted to help the poor. He could get us BPL (Below Poverty Line) cards and Aadhaar cards. He said there would be a function organised to enrol us,” said Ismail, who heads the community by virtue of the fact that he is the contractor who employs the rest for gathering plastic.

Balmiki was arrested by the local police for “carrying out conversion by offering enticement” on December 16, Senior Superintendent of Police, Agra, Shalab Mathur said. “We are investigating the matter; if more names come up, we will take action,” he said. Balmiki, now the main accused in the matter, had begun negotiating with Ismail in the name of offering government sops. Ismail said they were even offered plots for building homes or small houses if they agreed to get converted. “We have lived here for 12 years. Before that we were in Tajganj for five years, but we were evicted by the plot owner,” Rashid, another resident, said. Both he and Ismail are from North 24 Parganas in West Bengal as are most others in the shanty cluster.

“Balmiki said he would come to make a list of those who needed to be given cards. Then he came with his son and took down our names and thumb impressions. He asked me to give a date for the function to enrol everyone so he could call the press and local leaders. We agreed on December 8. He asked me to tell the press that we were voluntary participants in all the proceedings; otherwise we would not get our due,” Ismail said. “On the morning of December 8, some men came and set up a stage. They also installed a statue of Kali Mata in the hut of Om Prakash Singh,” he said. Singh, the lone Hindu resident of the slum cluster, was away at that time. “I would not have let this happen, had I been around,” he said. 

The victims alleged that the organisers gathered the men and women in the clearing beside the statue and surrounded them in large numbers, directing them to follow instructions during the rituals. A priest recited shlokas and smeared vermillion on a few people’s foreheads. “We were too scared to do anything except listen to their instructions,” Farhan said. Finally, the priest asked the men to remove their caps. “He then buried one cap under his foot. That was the time we realised we had done something wrong,” said Munira Begum, Ismail’s wife, rather pensively. “We spend the evening in a huddle unable to make sense of what exactly happened. One of our boys went to the market and people began asking him whether the entire colony had converted and become Hindu. He rushed back and told us about it. Soon journalists began coming here and then the police. We told them it wasn’t voluntary,” she said.

The organisers — from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh affiliates Dharm Jagran Samiti and the Bajrang Dal — maintained that the Agra conversion was a voluntary  Ghar Vapsi programme when reports appeared in the local media the next day. The RSS-affiliated organisations use the term broadly to mean a homecoming for Muslims and Christians back into the Hindu fold. “There was no use of force,” Tikam Singh, an office-bearer of the samiti, said. “Till the time all Hindus who were lured away don’t come back, there can be no nationalism. This is the only country where the majority is exploited and everyone else has protectors. We are trying to change that for good,” he said. The samiti, he said, does re-conversion programmes through the year. “The Agra conversion got undue publicity for reasons unknown to me.” Back in New Delhi, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has used the incident to reopen a debate on a central law against conversion. “Re-conversion is an issue only after conversion. In their eagerness to disrupt the proceedings the opposition parties have put themselves in a piquant situation ... By behaving anti-Hindu, they are creating more space for the BJP,” a senior party leader said.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 3:23:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/conversion-confusion-forced-into-homecoming/article6711441.ece

Next Story