‘Threatened us, tried to extort money’: Muslim convert accuses media of misreporting, harassment

Ayesha Alvi moved the high court over threats she received for her conversion. The court directed the police to ‘protect her life and safety’.

ByNidhi Suresh
‘Threatened us, tried to extort money’: Muslim convert accuses media of misreporting, harassment
Shambhavi Thakur
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On May 27, Renu Gangwar, 30, converted to Islam. She adopted the name Ayesha Alvi.

A month later, on June 28, she filed a petition at the Delhi High Court seeking protection against the threats she was receiving for her conversion. She also accused the media of continuous harassment and extortion. On July 1, a vacation bench of the court directed the police to “take adequate steps to protect the life and safety of the petitioner” until the matter is heard on July 5.

In her petition, Ayesha said that she was under “extreme threat” and needed security to ensure that she is not “forcefully taken away from Delhi by any person, organisation or any state agency”. Newslaundry accessed a copy of her petition.

Ayesha, who lives in Delhi and works at the Delhi International Airport, hails from Tilhar in Uttar Pradesh’s Shahjahanpur district. Mufti Qazi Jahangir Alam from Jamia Nagar, New Delhi, had facilitated her conversion and issued a conversion certificate.

On June 9, as per procedure, an advertisement in the Sikh Times announced the conversion. A week later, Ayesha applied for a gazette notification.

“I converted to Islam religion with my own free will,” she stated in her high court petition, “and without any threat or coercion from anyone.”

Nevertheless, when journalists received information of her conversion, Ayesha said she was hounded, threatened and forced to speak.

Extortion and harassment

On June 20, Ayesha went to Tilhar to visit her parents. From June 23, she began receiving multiple phone calls from different journalists, asking her to meet them. As she said in her petition, she was “troubled time and again by different media persons” and that her father was “forced by different organisations and the police that he should force me to reconvert”.

Meanwhile, on June 21, the Uttar Pradesh anti-terrorism squad arrested two people: Mohammad Umar Gautam and Mufti Qazi Jahangir Alam Qasmi, who had issued Ayesha’s conversion certificate. The duo were accused of mass conversions of non-Muslims by luring them with jobs, money, pressure, or marriages.

Umar and Qasmi were booked under sections pertaining to the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance 2020. They were accused of mass conversion of non-muslims by luring them with marriage, job, money or mental pressure. Umar’s family and neighbours told Newslaundry there was no truth in the charges.

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The Times of India reported that the anti-terror squad registered another FIR against Qasmi and Umar for Ayesha’s conversion. However, Uttar Pradesh’s additional director general of police (law and order) Prashant Kumar told Newslaundry that only one FIR has been registered by the ATS against Umar and Qasmi.

When this reporter specifically cited the Times of India report, he said, “I won’t comment on whether that is misinformation but I can say with clarity that the ATS has filed one single FIR against the men and they are investigating it.”

Ayesha’s lawyer, Kamlesh Kumar Mishra, told Newslaundry that when Qasmi was arrested, the police seized his register which listed Ayesha’s name. “The UP police then leaked that information to the media,” Mishra alleged. “Immediately after that, the local reporters reached her house.”

The reporters went to her parents’ home in a village in Tilhar, Mishra said, since the address was on her conversion certificate which had also been leaked to the press. However, Ayesha and her parents were at her family’s second house in a Tilhar town and the reporters soon went there too.

In her statement, Ayesha said she made it clear that she did not want to speak to the media but that she was pressured to do so by journalists.

She said: “The first mobile call that I received was from 063******** and when he came he threatened that he will publish the news about my conversion and that I would get arrested and he demanded money from me and when we denied he threatened again. Thereafter he forcefully took 20 thousand rupees from us."

When Newslaundry contacted the number stated by Ayesha in her petition, the person identified himself as Deep Srivastava, reporter at News18. He told Newslaundry there was “no truth” in the claim that he had extorted money from Ayesha. When asked if Ayesha had initially refused to give him a video statement, Srivastava said, “I can’t talk about this over the phone.” He then cut the call.

Advocate Mishra also alleged to Newslaundry that it was Deep Srivastava whom Ayesha was referring to in her petition. He alleged that Srivastava had repeatedly called Ayesha and asked to meet, until she finally gave him her address.

When Srivastava went to her house, Mishra alleged, he “asked her to say the name of any Muslim man on camera and accuse him for her conversion. He allegedly promised her that only if she gave that statement would she be safe. Ayesha suddenly got scared and so she did what he told her to.” Mishra said he was unaware of which “Muslim man” Ayesha named.

He also alleged that after recording the video, Srivastava told Ayesha the video, if released, could get her booked under the state anti-conversion law.

Mishra alleged, “The journalist told her, ‘Now that you’ve said this on camera, if we publish this, it will become very difficult for you and your family...And your family will be in trouble.’”

Srivastava then purportedly “demanded Rs 20,000” from Ayesha to suppress the publishing of the video, Mishra said. Once Ayesha allegedly paid him the money since she “feared for her life and safety”, he did not publish her video statement.

However, Ayesha said in her petition that he wasn’t the only journalist to allegedly threaten her.

“There were other media personnel who had come and threatened us and tried to extort money from us,” she wrote. “Some other persons and organisations also started threatening me and my family to force me to reconvert to Hinduism.”

Several media houses released video clips of Ayesha describing her conversion. In one of the videos, Ayesha said, “I have changed my religion for my job because over there (Dubai) it will help me get benefits”.

When the reporter asked her about her job in Delhi, Ayesha said, “Just like everyone, I too want to get ahead in life. I have worked hard for so many years and my selection is happening there. So, doing this was necessary for me.”

The reporter then prodded Ayesha on whether she took permission from her parents before converting. Ayesha responded that initially her parents were reluctant but she went ahead with her decision. However, the reporter pressed on, asking her, “What was happening so much that you needed to change your religion?” He also asked her current salary and the salary she was promised in Dubai.

Mishra said there may be “some truth” to Ayesha’s explanation in the video on why she converted, but he added that their focus now is Ayesha’s safety. Ayesha had returned to New Delhi on June 24, feeling unsafe in Shahjahanpur, and Mishra met her the following day.

“I asked her what exactly she wanted to do,” he said. “She told me that if this is going to become a big issue, she will convert back. But if it was up to her, she would prefer to remain a Muslim.”

Back in Delhi, Ayesha said in her statement, she continued to receive calls and messages saying she would be “forcefully taken back” and converted to Hinduism.

Mishra told Newslaundry that the local police in Tilhar along with the members of the local intelligence unit had called Ayesha’s father and told him to bring her “home”. “They also asked him to accuse someone, any Muslim guy, and said that only then, Ayesha will be safe,” he alleged.

Ayesha said as much in her statement, writing that the “UP police” told her father to “give a statement involving some Muslim men into my conversion. Then I would be spared. Or else, I will be in great trouble.”

Anil Gangwar, Ayesha’s father, told Newslaundry that he has not filed a police complaint over his daughter’s conversion. “I have no problem with her conversation if that’s what she wants,” he said, adding: “I have no complaints about the police.”

Newslaundry contacted Harpal Singh, the station house officer of Tilhar police station, and Sanjay Kumar, the additional superintendent of police in Shahjahanpur. Both Singh and Kumar said they could not comment on the case as it was being investigated by the ATS. When asked if the local police were in touch with Ayesha’s family, they said no.

Prashant Kumar, the additional director general of police of Uttar Pradesh, told Newslaundry he was not aware of Ayesha’s case and that the ATS was focusing on the larger “conversion racket” at the moment. “We are investigating cases of forceful conversion where the person was coerced, pressured or lured with money, job, marriage etc,” he said. “If it is a voluntary conversion and no coercion, then it’s fine.”

So, would Ayesha’s voluntary conversion be interpreted as coercion? “I don’t know,” he said. “Can’t comment now.”

Media misreporting

Ayesha’s petition mentioned news reports by OpIndia and Punjab Kesari which, according to her, “maligned” her and misreported her case.

OpIndia, a rightwing blog, claimed that Ayesha converted to Islam because of her “greed for higher salary”. The report also said that while working at the ticketing counter at Delhi airport, Ayesha had been inspired by a man who “entrapped her in his word”.

OpIndia’s report said, “At present, no one can believe the statement of the girl that she changed from Hindu to Muslim to get a job in Dubai...Only last month, she was married to a Hindu boy who is working in Mumbai.”

The OpIndia report also referred to a report by Hindustan which used the same angle and blamed an unnamed Muslim youth for “implicating the daughter of a retired soldier”. The report also called Ayesha “greedy”.

The piece in Punjab Kesari was headlined “OMG: Renu became Ayesha for a better job in Dubai, said ‘now you will get a good salary’”. The report printed Ayesha’s conversion certificate, complete with personal details such as her contact number, address and email id.

Apart from the two reports listed in the petition, Newslaundry found multiple other media houses which had “maligned” and misreported Ayesha’s story.

News18 published a piece by Deep Srivastava which said Ayesha was “married to a Hindu boy only last month”. The same story was repeated by Aaj Tak and Amar Ujala.

While Times of India claimed that Ayesha had “married a Muslim youth after switching the religion”, Mishra told Newslaundry that Ayesha is not married.

“She’s not married and neither is her marriage fixed to anyone,” he said in the context of media houses that had reported otherwise. “This is complete misreporting.”

He added that Ayesha felt better once news organisations began reporting on her petition. “She is happy that at least someone is listening to her side of the story,” Mishra said. “But she fears for her safety.”

Update on July 5

Newslaundry reached out to OpIndia, Hindustan, Punjab Kesari, Times of India, Amar Ujala and Aaj Tak to seek a response.

Amar Ujala editor Jaideep Karnik told Newslaundry that they do not wish to respond to the queries at the moment.

Punjab Kesari, which published Ayesha’s personal details including her home address, contact number and email address, responded to our queries. "We are taking down the report. We will look into the matter and appropriate action will be taken,” said Aviral Singh, Uttar Pradesh head of department at Punjab Kesari.

Their story was taken down on July 5.

Aaj Tak had claimed without quoting a source that, a month ago, Ayesha had married a Hindu boy. Advocate Kamlesh Kumar, Ayesha's lawyer, clarified to Newslaundry that Ayesha is not married. Aaj Tak did not respond to Newslaundry's query. However, on July 5, Aaj Tak edited their report and added that “Shahjahanpur SP S Anand claimed that the girl had married a Hindu boy only last month and the boy is working in Mumbai”. An archived version of their original report can be seen here.

Newslaundry also reached out to News18 to clarify Deep Srivastava's role in the organization. The network is yet to respond.

OpIndia, Times of India and Hindustan have not yet responded.

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