Umar Gautam was jailed last month after the UP police accused him of running a ‘conversion racket’.
It was a call from Ranvijay’s father. But the timing was odd. It was 1 am in Toronto, Canada, where Ranvijay currently lives. He instantly realised something was wrong.
“Some UP ATS people are coming home,” Ranvijay’s father told him, referring to Uttar Pradesh’s Anti Terror Squad. “They want to record your statement regarding the conversion.”
A few days earlier, on June 20, the ATS had arrested two Muslim men named Umar Gautam and Jahangir Kasmi – they have since held seven more people – and accused them of running a forced “conversion racket”. Umar ran a charitable institution, the Islamic Da’wah Centre, in Delhi which helped people converting to Islam to formalise their change of faith. Kasmi was a staffer at IDC.
Newslaundry has previously reported why Umar’s family rubbish the police’s claim that he helped forcibly converted about 1,000 people to Islam. We have also detailed why the allegations of forced conversion of two students of a school for the deaf in Noida don’t stand scrutiny.
In this third report in the series on the alleged “mass conversion racket”, we focus on two Muslim converts who were assisted by the Islamic Da’wah Centre.
‘He’s familiar with the paperwork’
Ranvijay, who is from western Uttar Pradesh, formally embraced Islam in 2015 and sought Umar’s assistnce to obtain the legal documentation. He had met Umar two years earlier, when he was mulling over converting, and got to know him rather well.
“I don’t recognise the man they are showing us on TV. Umar bhai is not a radical,” he said. “He is very progressive and would never force his ways on you.”
The very idea of conversion through coercion or deceit, Ranvijay argued, is anathema to Islam. “Conversion that happens through coercion is null and void,” he said.
For Ranvijay, the journey towards Islam began in 2012, when he went to Delhi for studies. “I converted to Islam through a series of experiments in my spiritual life. So I began with Hinduism and then went to church for eight months. But some of my questions were not answered, which led to a phase of agnosticism,” he recalled.
At the end of 2012, after conversations with a Muslim friend over tea, he started visiting a mosque in the neighbourhood where he lived. “I couldn’t memorise the Quran so I would read the translation while offering namaz,” he said.
What had sparked his journey, though? “Religion was never forced on me,” he replied. “I came from a liberal household where indulgence in religious activities meant going to temples, observing fasts. But I was looking for something that would give me an anchor. Unlike Hinduism, which is amorphous, I wanted to have a concrete idea of religion. And Semitic religions have a well-defined structure and they do answer a person’s angst.”
That is when he contacted Umar. “He is familiar with the documentation. People largely go to him for paperwork,” Ranvijay said.
He explained that formalising religious conversion in India is a four-step process. First, the convert must give an affidavit to a sub divisional magistrate declaring that they are changing their religion of their own will. Second, they must obtain a certificate of conversion, from a cleric if the chosen religion is Islam. Third, they must run a newspaper ad making public their new religious identity. Fourth, if the convert has taken a new name, they must have it included in the Gazette of India, a tedious exercise which takes 30-40 days and is fraught with danger.
“I've heard of cases where information about the convert was leaked to a third party during the formalisation process at the Gazette of India. The information was shared with Hindu asmita groups which went to the person’s house and harassed them,” Ranvijay claimed.
This is one reason why many converts to Islam take help from institutions such as Umar’s IDC which sort out the paperwork without compromising their privacy.
Ranvijay, like many converts, “felt no need to change his name”, although, for documentation, he was named Mohammed Sadh.
Conversion strained Ranvijay’s ties with his family, but only for a while. “My family didn’t welcome my decision initially. They thought it was a phase and that I’d return to the Hindu fold. Since there was no mosque in my locality, I began praying at home. Things go back to normal after five-six years,” he said.
In June, when the UP ATS visited Ranvijay’s home and demanded to see his conversion paperwork, he declined. “I converted of my own will. When they asked for my paperwork, I consulted a lawyer who suggested I refrain from doing so. They are leaking our information to the media, making it difficult for people like me to apply for jobs,” he explained.
On July 2, the Allahabad High Court reserved its order on a plea by Umar and Kasmi seeking to bar the media from misreporting on their prosecution. The plea lists as respondents TV channels Zee News, Sudarshan News, Aaj Tak, and the Hindu supremacist media website OpIndia, and makes the ATS a party for “issuing press releases providing sensitive information prejudicing with the petitioner’s right to fair trial”.
“Mainstream media is trying to demonise Gautam. They have gone bonkers on this and are trying to create a rift,” Ranvijay complained.
‘I was hounded by the media’
Richa was not around when the UP police visited her home in Ghatampur, a town about 22 km from Kanpur city, on June 19. She was in Delhi, where she works with an NGO.
“They came to enquire about my conversion,” Richa said. “They didn’t call to ask me any questions though.”
Two days later, she got a call. It was a local reporter who claimed to be working for Republic Bharat. He was outside Richa’s house, along with a reporter for News Nation, the caller said, and they wanted to speak with her about the “conversion racket”. Richa turned them away. “My conversion has been a touchy topic for my family and so my parents felt hassled seeing mediapersons standing right outside our home. So I had to ask them to leave immediately,” she explained.
Richa, 27, adopted Islam four years ago. Like Ranvijay, she chose to retain her Hindu name, though she was identified as Maheen in the paperwork.
Why did she convert? “I didn’t have any problem with Hinduism as such, but I had some questions in my mind. There were some Jain people in our neighbourhood and they had an influence on me. I was also inclined towards Buddhism for a while. In early 2016, I started reading about Islam,” Richa replied. She began with an English translation of the Quran and then read a book on Hadith, or narrations about the life and sayings of Prophet Muhammad.
She formalised her conversion the following year. “Let’s say that you want to keep a fast, pray in a certain manner or wear a hijab, you might be targeted. So, I thought of going through the legal process,” she said. “But it is hard for a non-Muslim to figure out the process of filing an affidavit and getting a formal document from a certified cleric. I went online to find out how to do all this and IDC’s name popped up. When I went to IDC’s office, Umar Gautam asked if I was sure about converting and if I had read enough on Islam. Jahangir Kasmi checked whether there was pressure on me and whether I was converting to get married.”
After Umar and Kasmi were arrested, a list of some of the Muslim converts they had helped was leaked to the media. It named 33 women. One of them was Richa, whose conversion became the subject of reports in Amar Ujala, Dainik Bhaskar, OpIndia. The reports declared, among other claims, that she “donates Rs 75,000 from her salary to a mosque”. None of the media outlets bothered to ask her side.
“I don’t have the kind of salary that I can give to charity,” she said, explaining how the reports about her were full of false assertions.
They also claimed, falsely, that Richa “was brainwashed by a Muslim professor” while she was studying in Allahabad. The news website Divya Bharat even identified the professor as Mohd Shahid of Allahabad University.
Shahid, who teaches political science, had been arrested in April 2020 for allegedly hiding his participation in the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi which was widely demonised by much of the legacy media for spreading Covid in India and for arranging seven Indonesians to stay at a local mosque in violation of the lockdown rules. Shahid was soon suspended by the university, but reinstated in February this year after he secured bail.
“I have never known Prof Shahid,” Richa said. “I got my MBA from a college in Allahabad and he is a professor of political science at the university.” She asked not to name her college for fear it would be hounded by the media.