At a roadside paan shop in the heart of Agra, I ask a group of men about the mass religious conversions that took place in the city about four months ago. “We haven’t heard a lot since then,” says a short man as he runs his pudgy fingers through his hair.
The event that shocked the country has fallen off the collective conscience. That could be because it has been milked dry by political parties. “The Samajwadi Party-led government in the state has played this well. It had to protect its minority vote. So it got the situation under control pretty quickly,” says another man at the shop.
With these insights, I head off to Ved Nagar to find out how life has changed for those who had their ghar wapsi that fateful December morning. There, I meet the man who was at the centre of the mass conversion. On a searing afternoon, 47-year-old Mohammed Ismail reluctantly recalls the unsettling events of that chilly morning.
On the morning of December 8, Ismail along with several others had participated in a Hindu religious ceremony. A priest applied tilak on their foreheads, tied a red thread around their wrists and sprinkled Ganga jal on them. After a havan, Ismail, even as his baffled wife, Moneera Begum, looked on, was asked to hold aloft an idol of Goddess Kali. Ismail, under the gaze of the members of the Dharm Jagran Samiti – an organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that was sponsoring the event – obliged. Followers of Islam all their life, the hour-long ceremony meant that the faith they had revered was no longer theirs.
On my last visit to the area soon after the event took place, Begum had claimed that they took part in the ceremony only because they were promised Aadhaar cards and ration cards meant for those below the poverty line. She had said that they didn’t know that they were being converted to Hinduism. However, these 50-odd families of Ved Nagar, most of them migrants from Bangladesh who eke out a living as rag pickers, scrap dealers and rickshaw pullers, are still without those precious documents.
Ajju Chauhan, co-convener of the Bajrang Dal in Uttar Pradesh, who lives a stone’s throw away from where the conversions took place, refused to comment on the issue. He was at the forefront of the programme that took place in December. Dharm Jagran Samiti activist Nand Kishore Valmiki, who was charged for facilitating the mass conversions, was nabbed by the city police in January earlier this year. The matter is still being investigated by the Agra Police.
Contrary to what Chauhan and Valmiki had set out to achieve, the ceremony, and the universal opprobrium it brought have only hardened the residents’ religious identity. Sitting outside his ramshackle hut, wearing a dhoti and his upper body covered with a cloth, Ismail says: “For us, our religion is everything. Losing our religion was like losing our identity.”
When I ask them whether they consider themselves Hindu or Muslim, Ismail says that they will always be Muslims. “If I say you’re a Muslim, you don’t become one, do you?” he says. “Religion is what you believe. You can’t become a Hindu or a Muslim overnight. Islam will always be my faith.”
Once news of the ghar wapsi had broken out, Muslim religious leaders had descended on Ved Nagar, admonished the residents for their misdemeanor and said they would be brought back to the faith. But that wasn’t necessary. “I don’t need to take part in a ceremony to become Muslim again,” says Ismail.
However, a local mosque in Sultanpur sends a Maulvi to the area daily to allay fears of any of these dwellers converting to Hinduism. Namaaz is offered five times a day and religious texts are read out with all members of the colony in attendance.
Begum proudly shows me the Quran that she had hid immediately after the ghar wapsi, fearing that members of the Dharm Jagran Samiti might set it on fire. “They came looking for the Quran. They said that I shouldn’t be keeping it with me since I was a Hindu now,” she recalls. “But now I keep it next to me all the time. I’m glad I could save it.” There is an unmistakable confidence in her voice. The panic that had gripped her the last time we spoke seems to have given way to a sense of relief. Two young women sitting next to her, who are fluent in Bangla and can speak a little Hindi, say that life, slowly but steadily, is returning back to normal.
The Maulvi also teaches English, Arabic and Hindi to the 30-odd children who live in the area. Ismail shows me the cramped room, albeit complete with a small television, where the children are taught. The floor looks freshly laid and a pedestal fan is in place in one corner of the room. “After offering the morning namaaz, the children are taught here,” he says. “In the evening, all of us gather here to watch television.”
Hassan, 10, unmindful of what happened here in December, calls himself a devout Muslim. “We are taught about religion. That is why I offer namaaz,” he says with a coy smile. In his spare time, he watches cricket with all the other kids. He tells me that he watched all the matches India played in the recently concluded cricket World Cup.
Apart from more religion, not much has changed for these people. The residents were provided free meals three times a day by the state government for a month after the event. “Along with food, we were also given blankets during winter,” says Mohammed Kalam, another resident who took part in the ghar wapsi.
For a month, heavy security was also deployed in the locality, with a minimum of five policemen on duty at all times. “We feared for our lives after Valmiki was arrested. We thought that the members of the Dharm Jagran Samiti would come back and threaten us,” says Begum, wearing a pale yellow headscarf and giving finishing touches to an embroidered piece of cloth with a sewing needle in hand. “But with the police around, we felt that nothing could happen to us.”
Mohammed Shahid, a rickshaw puller, says that he doesn’t understand a lot of politics, but he is happy that the government protected him. “Had the police not been deployed, they would have come back and troubled us. We will not fall into such a trap again,” he says.
Relief amid fear
But fear does lurk around. Mohammed Jalal, sitting on the floor and puffing at a beedi, says how migrants such as him are easy targets. “Yes, we do need benefits. We’ve been living here for more than 15 years and nothing has been done for us,” he says despondently. “But not at the cost of religion. Being poor is not a problem, changing our religion is.”
What if people who converted them come calling again? Begum says that she has taken down the phone number of every journalist who has visited her in the last few months. The local police have also assured her of full protection. “If something goes wrong, we’ll call you. But this time we’re extra cautious,” she says.
Officers at the Sadar Bazar police station say that they’ve been given instructions to keep a special check in the area. “The Akhilesh Yadav government does not want a similar incident to take place. One of our personnel visits the locality every second day,” says an officer strictly on the condition of anonymity. “We will not let anything like this happen again.”
For the slum dwellers of Ved Nagar, the events of that December morning still haunt them. But they are willing to move on. “What has happened has happened. It was an unfortunate incident. All we want is that the guilty be punished,” says Ismail.