December 12th, 2014
Probably the only achievement of my Agra visit to unravel the conversion-mystery was - I was asked by the residents of the slums of Vednagar near Deori Road, Agra, to stay back for a while and have lunch with them.
Belonging to a fraternity with which they were, by then, thoroughly pissed off to such an extent that a mere sight of a creature toting a camera and brandishing a mike would immediately send them in search for a hiding, a lunch offer was indeed an achievement.
It was a community lunch. Vegetables, rice and wheat flour had been provided by a local Muslim group headed by a Samajvadi Party (SP) leader. 4-5 days of near standstill in their hand to mouth existence had brought them together; crisis has this cohesive effect. In that freezing cold weather, it was the first meal of the day for many, thanks to intermittent rains which had turned the entire slum area into a swamp and pushed the lunch time to as late as 4 PM.
In the morning, with 5-6 police personnel with SLRs (Rifles, not the cameras) right at the entrance of the slum cluster, I was a bit apprehensive about the success of my mission when i showed up at ground zero. Surprisingly, no one stopped or interrogated me. With every passing minute, my ease with the area grew. By noon, I felt at home!
Neither my eyes nor my local inquiry could confirm the figure doing the rounds in the newspapers - 380. The number of Muslims claimed to have converted to Hinduism. Less than 200 people live in the slum according to Ismail aka Thekedaar, the contractor of the rag-pickers in the slum. He was the point of contact between the converters and the convertees.
The two RSS affiliated Hindu right-wing outfits - Bajrang Dal and Dharm Jagran Manch - the proud organizers of this so called 'Home-coming' ceremony have asserted that these people converted 'voluntarily'. They even have a video-proof of the same in which a few dozen people donning skull caps are performing a 'hawan', putting 'tilak' on each other's forehead and Ismail admitting that the conversion took place with their consent.
Ismail now claims to be totally unaware of the 'nature' of the 'hawan' till the very end. He says that he was abruptly told by the Pundit, who himself appeared at the eleventh hour, that 'hitherto you were a Muslim but now you are a Hindu' when the hawan concluded and he had to fake willingness lest the men in saffron should run a rampage in the slum. "They were 30-40 men surrounding us. Had I declined then, there would have been khoon-kharaba (riot) here," he said.
May be Ismail and his friends were duped into conversion or may be they were simply lured. But now that the issue has transcended local boundaries and captured the space inside the parliament, the only possible option with the Vednagar slum dwellers is to reject conversion altogether. They can't say they agreed to renounce Islam and embrace Hinduism for BPL cards etc for such an act attracts severe punishment and ostracisation under sharia law. In some Islamic countries, the punishment of apostasy is death!
I asked this question to Mufti Mudassir Qadri, Secretary of Tanzim Ulmai Ahle Sunnat, Agra, the organization which is now running a Madarsa in the slum post-incident to teach the children and youth about Islam religion.
"These people say that they have been duped into conversion. But let's hypothetically assume that these people converted willingly. What would have happened then?"
"Since it's a hypothetical question, lets first disassociate it from these people," he replied. "Now answering to your question, if they had moved out, nobody would have come to persuade or force them to return to Islam and they would have been boycotted by the Muslim community. What's worse than being banished by the community?"
"What community?" was also a question that flashed my mind but i chose not to ask. Do these people care what community thinks about them? or vice versa. I mean, who gives a damn to the lives of rag-pickers living in deplorable shanties in a hard-to-find slum? Who cares whether they are Muslim or Hindu?
To put things in perspective, this whole activity was so nondescript that even the neighbours living in their pucca-houses only came to know about this National-issue happening in their backyard through TV and newspapers. The didn't even know for how long these people have been living there in the slum in that area.
The people in the slums simply had no clue that this seemingly inconsequential activity would become such a big issue and that they would become an overnight celebrities. Suddenly, the entire nation, especially Media and certain religious and political groups, was taking keen interest in their lives. They were under surveillance.
If the slum dwellers were grappling with this mouse turned monster, so were the RSS and its affiliates which carried out this conversion exercise. They invited the media to cover the event to announce the resurgence of saffron power to the world. Instead, it boomeranged on them with charges of forged conversions.
Now, they too have no choice but to refute any doles or promises made out to these poor Vednagar slum residents. They can't say we 'bribed' these people with BPL cards etc to embrace Hinduism for it's a crime to induce someone to convert according to constitution of India. Bajrang Dal maintains that it's the self-realization of these people that Hinduism is the best way forwards which has motivated them to leave the religion which their ancestors accepted under certain circumstances.
What amuses me in this argument is that the Bajrang Dal and company are so sure about the religion of the ancestors of these people but they have no clue about their Nationality! Now that the issue has backfired, it has suddenly manifested to the saffron brigade that many of these slum dwellers are from Bangladesh!
Lets assume all of them are illegal Bangadeshi immigrants. If you had this apprehension, why didn't you verify their nationality before organizing this mass-conversion for them? Or is it that nationality doesn't matter to you at all as long as one is becoming a Hindu?
And what about the promise of BPL cards? Doesn't one need to be an Indian Citizen for that? Oh I remember, a Hindu is an Indian (Hindustani) citizen by default.
Has this nationality trump card deflected the focus from the question of conversion? well, partly yes. Media loves controversy and new twists in the tale are constantly needed to keep it fresh and juicy. Journalists picked the bait with pleasure. A 'nationalistic' reporter of a Hindi News Channel in particular took it personally. He was so convinced that Ismail was from Bangladesh and alluded it so many time in his brief P2C, that even the Election Commission of India would be forced to check whether it issued voter Identity card to Ismail by mistake. He later went on to grill Ismail and his sister to ascertain their identical paternity. Like a grammar Nazi, he would catch a mismatch in their pronunciation. I was amused and befuddled by the superlative journalistic skills of my friend.
I couldn't help but ask him why he was so hellbent on proving Ismail a Bangladeshi?
"Why is it appearing to you so?" he replied.
"Not just me. Anyone can see through what you are doing."
"but nobody else is speaking."
"not my problem if they are not."
"Then you should also shut up."
"I wish I could."
By that time, somebody intervened and the argument was cut short. No I am not saying that one should simply trust what he is being told. But I guess being skeptical doesn't mean you stoop below minimum level of courtesy and professionalism expected from you. My hunch is, if this controversy had erupted in an middle class locality, he would have done many things differently.
Having said that, the only good thing that happened to Vednagar slum out of this controversy is - education for the kids. I couldn't clearly identify the reasons behind almost no kid going to school; perennially absent teachers was one of them. Of course the focus of the new makeshift Madarsa is on acquainting the children to Islam but they are taught Hindi, English and Urdu as well. If this initiative survives the test of time, maybe some of the children, some years down the line would move up the socio-economic ladder so that they don't have to convert their religion again for some petty benefits. And trust me, some of the kids were really smart to actually make that change happen.