Monira Begum interrupts her husband sharply, “You don’t know how to speak. Let me tell the story.” Her husband is Ismail – who is the recognised leader of Ved Nagar’s Muslims, caught in the ‘conversion’ controversy since Monday. Ismail registered a complaint with the police. But his real boss appears to his begum.
It is late evening as we are huddled around a fire in the slum, when Begum narrates the sequence of events – how Nand Kishore, who lives in the neighbourhood, came twenty days ago promising that Modi sarkar would give them BPL cards. He returned a few days to list everyone’s name; on Monday, Kishore came with others to set up a stage, asking the men to bathe and wear a skull cap and women to come in burqas.
“It was after they put tikas on forehead of men and said you are now Hindus that we realised what had happened. One of them even took off one man’s skull cap and stamped it under his feet to say your faith has changed now. Till then, we thought it was just an event to hand over BPL cards,” says Begum. She said there was never any quid pro quo - of turning Hindus for a BPL card. "It is BPL after all, not something that would make us crorepatis. They misled us." Why did they not resist it right then? Ismail says, “We were scared.” His wife throws him an angry look, “I was sleeping, but if I was up, let me tell you, riot or no riot, I would not have allowed it.”
The man Ved Nagar’s Bengali Muslims have to confront now too lives close-by.
Ajju Chauhan, co-convenor of the Bajrang Dal in the state, cannot stop smiling. Though he has not been named as an accused, he was present on Monday – and is relishing the media attention. Chauhan gets a friend to click his picture on the phone and whatsapp it to a local media representative; he gives a byte to a national Hindi news channel; and he laughs when asked about a common acquaintance – a Bajrang Dal leader in Meerut. “Saharanpur riots made him a hero. He just spent a month in jail but is now out.”
It is now Chauhan’s turn to project himself as the ‘hero’. He counters the Begum’s version. “It was all voluntary. We have ‘sankalpa patra’, a commitment paper, from 387 of them with details of their past Hindu ancestry, their original castes, and their consent to turn back to Hindu faith. They have backtracked because maulanas have put pressure” When asked if he would share these papers, Chauhan hesitated, “We will give it to the administration tomorrow.”
Though the incident may have been a setback – after all, the Muslims stuck to their faith – Chauhan and the Sangh Parivar see it as a triumph. The details don’t matter anymore, and the familiar mix of belligerence and victimhood is at play. “Thousands of people are converted to Christianity and Islam, but when a few convert to Hinduism, there is such a hue and cry. Make no mistake, Hindu society is now aware. Modi sarkar was formed because of this awareness in Hindu society.”
Chauhan pats the central government on its back for the stance it took in parliament. “We are completely satisfied, for we wanted a debate on conversion and a strong anti conversion law. This incident has established it as a national issue.” Chauhan says that the Aligarh plan – of converting 5000 Christians on Christmas – will happen as scheduled. What if the government bans it? “It will become even bigger. Suppress and it will blow up.”
If the Hindu right is aggressive, conservative Muslim outfits are getting into the act. Using the moment, the MIM has quickly set up an ad-hoc district committee.
Mohammed Idris Ali, the party’s district convenor, was leading a protest at the Agra collectorate on Thursday. When asked about the demands, he said, “Ban RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and Dharma Jagran Manch; ban all ‘ghar vaapsi’ events; take action against Ajju Chauhan and stop the Aligarh event.”
Circumstances propelled them to the national limelight, but Monira Begum and the Muslims of Ved Nagar now want to return to their anonymous lives of eking out an existence by selling scrap – and praying as they have always done, to Allah. It was the first Friday after the controversy, and all of them did their namaaz prayers – some in the mosque, and many in the slum itself in full public view – to send out a message. “We were Muslims, we are Muslims, and we will remain Muslims.”