Forcibly or of their own will?
On June 28, the Uttar Pradesh police’s Anti Terrorism Squad arrested three men for allegedly running a “mass conversion racket”. Abdul Manan alias Mannu Yadav, Irfan Sheikh and Rahul Bhola are now in custody with Mohd Umar Gautam and Jahangir Kasmi, who were arrested in the same case on June 21.
They are accused, as Newslaundry reported last week, of taking money from Pakistan’s spy agency, ISI, to forcibly convert 1,000 people to Islam. So far, however, no more than two families have alleged forcible conversion of their sons, both students of a school for the deaf in Noida. One of them is Manan, who the police now curiously allege is actually a perpetrator.
Speaking with Newslaundry, the family of Umar, the alleged leader of the “conversion racket”, rubbished the accusations made against him by the police and the media. He only ever helped formalise the conversion of a newly converted Muslim through his organisation, Islamic Da’wah Centre, they insisted.
We also spoke with the families of Manan and Aditya Gupta, the other student named as a victim of the alleged racket in the FIR filed by the ATS in Lucknow.
In the FIR, the police allege that IDC lured “vulnerable people”, especially the deaf and mute, with promises of jobs and wives, only to force them to convert to Islam.
Manan and Aditya studied at a residential school for the specially abled, the Noida Deaf Society. After they went missing earlier this year, Aditya’s family in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, filed a police complaint alleging his abduction and forced conversion while Manan’s relatives in Gurgaon, Haryana, posted videos on social media claiming he had been forcibly converted.
They both returned on their own after a few weeks, however, only to be questioned by the ATS, which then claimed to have found a conversion certificate for each of them issued by IDC and signed by Kasmi. These certificates, the ATS claim, helped them establish a link between the “missing students” and the “conversion racket”.
But how did the ATS get involved when Aditya’s family had complained to the local police? Prashant Kumar, additional director general, law and order, claimed the ATS had been investigating an alleged assassination bid on Yati Narsighanand Saraswati, a Hindu extremist who serves as the priest of the Dasna temple in Ghaziabad, when they unearthed the “mass conversion racket”. When they heard about Manan and Aditya, they approached their families to find the reason behind their conversion.
As to how exactly they had linked the “missing students” to the “conversion racket”, Prashant told reporters on June 22, “These children were often abandoned by their families as well. Such vulnerable groups were the target. We have proof of funding that we will produce in the court.”
From Mannu Yadav to Abdul Manan
“Muslims made my son go mad,” Anita Yadav, 43, declared, recalling how her son’s behaviour had suddenly changed in February.
“On the morning of February 17, Mannu asked me to call his father. He wanted to discuss an urgent matter, he said. Then, he took out a piece of paper from his bag and handed it over to my husband,” she said.
It was Manan’s conversion certificate, signed by Kasmi of IDC. As her husband read it, Anita recalled, he nearly fainted. “Mannu no longer belongs to us,” her husband told her. “He has assumed the identity Abdul Manan.”
Her husband Rajiv Yadav, who works as a cab driver, interjected, “They have ruined our son. I ask the government to fix his brain, get a doctor to help him recover from the brainwashing.”
Anita and Rajiv Yadav were at their home in Gurgaon’s Babupur village, tired after a day of incessant media interviews. Holding her head in her hands, Anita told a neighbour that her head was spinning. The neighbour consoled Anita, “You will have to keep doing the interviews.”
Manan, 22, is Anita and Rajiv’s younger son. Deaf and mute, he communicates through sign language. His older brother, Ankit, works in the real estate sector.
Manan’s family wouldn’t accept his new religious identity, but he stood firm. “For the next five days, he did not eat anything. He tore his clothes and threw away our idols and photos of Hindu Gods and goddesses,” Anita said. “So we called RSS workers from a gaushala who tried to convince Mannu to eat and assured him we would let him do what he wanted.” The family took away his phone, however.
Manan did eventually start eating, but only frugally. He insisted that he wouldn’t eat properly until he was allowed to go back to his Muslim friends. It is unclear if his family prevented him from doing so.
On occasion, when he grew frustrated, Manan banged his head against a wall. “He would say that he liked Islam more than this religion,” Anita said, meaning Hinduism. “We didn’t want him to go to the Islamic fold.”
Manan stayed home for about two months, his mother said but wouldn’t elaborate if it was on his own accord or the family had restrained him. In that time, his mother added, he changed noticeably. He began wearing kurta pyjamas, for example, instead of shirts and trousers.
The transformation, though, had been a long time coming. Manan had started talking about Islam back in 2017, Anita recalled. “He told me if we were to die, he’d like to bury us instead of cremate us as is the Hindu custom,” she said. “We shushed him that time.”
In 2018, Manan began taking sign language classes at the Noida Deaf Society. A year later, he asked his parents if he could move into the school’s hostel. They refused, because they didn’t want him to spend more time with his friends whom they suspected of pushing Manan towards Islam – Shakeel Khan from Faridabad, Wajib Ali from Nuh, and one Gagan from Delhi who had recently become Muslim as well. The four of them had become friends while pursuing a vocational course in welding at an Industrial Training Institute in Gurgaon.
In December 2020, Manan went to Jalandhar to take a physical test for a post in the army. He didn’t qualify. “He was upset and we feel that it was at this point that his Muslim friends told him to leave behind his gods and goddesses and follow the path of Allah,” Anita guessed.
In April Manan started disappearing from home for days on end. And when it became more frequent, his father filed a complaint with the Haryana police. “I just wanted them to take action against the people who had influenced my son,” said Rajiv.
There was no “action”, despite several visits to the local police station and meetings with senior police officials. So the family began posting videos on social media asking for help. In one Facebook video, Ankit alleges that his brother was forced to change his religion at the Noida Deaf Society but the school authorities and the police aren’t helping the family.
After they took away Manan’s cellphone, which has since been handed over to the ATS, Rajiv said they found Whatsapp chats where Shakeel asks Manan to pay Rs 2,800 as a processing fee for the conversion certificate and Manan tells his friend to return Rs 10,000 he had borrowed. They also saw Manan’s pictures with Shakeel and Aditya Gupta from an outing in Delhi. There is, however, no mention of either Umar or Kasmi.
Why are Umar and Kasmi being accused of converting Manan then? “Mannu was introduced to Jahangir Kasmi at the Noida Deaf Society,” Rajiv claimed, without providing any evidence. “He must have drugged him and forced him to convert. Umar Gautam had a similar role.”
A few days after we spoke with Anita and Rajiv, the ATS arrested Manan. In a statement, the ATS accused him of helping forcibly convert Aditya Gupta. They also claimed he had damaged religious idols at his own home, without clarifying if they considered it an offence.
Harming idols of deities is an offence only when it’s done at a public place, or reported to have been done at a private place without the owner’s permission. In Manan's case, his parents haven't filed a complaint against him for damaging the idols.
‘Not disillusioned with Hinduism’
Rakesh Gupta, sitting inside his home in Kanpur’s Kalyanpur area, seemed hassled as a crowd of mediapersons directed a volley of questions at him regarding his son’s allegedly forced conversion to Islam. “He has just returned home,” Rakesh said, meaning his son Aditya. “We have not been able to talk to him yet.”
Aditya, 24, who is deaf and mute like Manan, had gone missing on March 10, prompting his family to lodge a police complaint. A few days later, however, according to the ATS, Aditya made a video call to his family, and told them he was in Kerala. More shockingly for his parents, he said he had converted to Islam.
The signs had been there, though, and Aditya’s mother Lakshmi Gupta had picked them up. “In the month of Ramzan during last year’s lockdown, whenever I gave him food he said he would eat in the evening. Later it struck me that it may have been because of roza,” Lakshmi said, adding that she had noticed him offering namaz as well.
Aditya, she added, had also asked his parents to get rid of their idols and posters of Hindu gods and goddesses.
“I was worried seeing all this,” Lakshmi recalled. “He’d always been interested in going to the temple and he never seemed disillusioned with Hindu religion.”
Aditya’s conversion certificate was issued by IDC and signed by Kasmi on January 14, 2021. Rakesh said he wasn’t sure how his son had got in touch with Umar or Kasmi. But however he had, his mother insisted it would not have been out of free will. “No, that’s just not possible,” she declared when asked if Aditya had converted to Islam out of choice.
She acknowledged, however, that Aditya’s turn towards Islam was not sudden. In 2012, she claimed, he became friends with one Mohd Wasib who introduced him to a teacher at Kanpur’s Haleem Muslim Post Graduate College. Soon, unknown to his parents, Aditya was taking classes at the college. “The classes were related to Islam. I stopped him going there when I found out and told the teacher we weren’t interested in continuing his education there,” Lakshmi said. “Aditya must have been 14 then. It was a closed chapter for us.”
So what could have pushed him to accept the new religion, nine years later? Lakshmi pointed to the family’s economic condition and the inability of a specially abled child’s family to understand what exactly he wants. “These are some of the questions he has posed about Hindu religion,” she said, showing a piece of paper.
Is Hinduism the oldest religion? Why are there multiple gods in Hinduism? Why is eating meat a taboo? These and questions on dress and marriage in the Hindu faith are scribbled on the paper.
Aditya, now back home, was asked in sign language if he had been induced or coerced to embrace Islam, “I often prayed to Hindu gods but nothing came of it. I even went to the church, but there was no result. So, someone suggested that I go to Allah,” he replied. “Now I see the people who suggested this path to me are getting arrested, so I’m scared.”
Now that she has him back at home, Lakshmi regularly takes Aditya to their temple. “He had some rich people in his friend circle and so when someone told him he could prosper by following the path of Allah, he went in search of a job and money,” she claimed. “As it’s, we don’t understand much of his sign language.”
Vivek Mishra is a journalist in Kanpur.
Pictures by Akanksha Kumar.
This is the second report in a series on the forced conversion case filed by the Uttar Pradesh police. The third part will focus on the Muslim converts who were helped by the Islamic Da’wah Centre. Read the first part.